A mystery suitable only for the compost heap

Oof, this recently published Midwest mystery seemed intriguing from the description, but it turned out to be a total miss for me. The narrator of When the Corn Is Waist High (2022) is both the town sheriff and the local Catholic priest, and he’s in way over his head when a serial killer appears to set up shop in his rural Indiana town.

The book is pegged on its cover as “A Thriller,” which can only have been an aspirational appellation added by someone who had not actually read the book. Often legitimate thrillers will effectively employ humor at strategic points to diffuse the building tension, but here we have Sheriff Father Lancaster making fun of everyone and everything around him, without any tension in sight to be diffused. It just comes off as mean-spirited and annoying.

He is at least an equal-opportunity asshole, I’ll give him that. Everyone from the local farmers to the police officers on loan from neighboring departments to the mayor and the FBI come in for ridicule. To read Scott’s rendition of rural Indiana is to wonder why anyone would ever want to live there. In the narrator’s eagerness to spotlight the worst aspects and congenital quirks of what he clearly views as Hicksville USA, he spends most of an entire chapter explaining at laborious length what a tenderloin sandwich is, making fun of the people who eat it, and then admitting that it’s tasty. Pick a lane, Sheriff Father Lancaster!

The only thing worse than the characterization is the plotting. None of it hangs together and there were so many unanswered questions, random red herrings that never get resolved, and unexpected revelations that don’t jibe with anything that came earlier that I wondered if the book was a strange choose-your-own-adventure gone awry.

I’m already as bored writing this review as I was reading the book, so I’ll wrap this up. There are couple of twists that I’m sure someone in the marketing department thought justified that “Thriller” label, but they came too late to redeem the book for me. I sincerely hope you never read this one, but if you have, there is just one of those unanswered questions that I’d love to have answered about the murderer and his crimes:


(Note: I received an advanced copy of this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a fair and honest review.)

A family saga that plays out on the boardwalk

To answer the most important question: Bruce Springsteen doesn’t figure into Greetings from Asbury Park (2022) at all, and that’s absolutely OK. This tale of a group of half-siblings trying to find their respective places in the world after their late and unlamented father dies is well able to stand on its own. Asbury Park itself — and the Jersey Shore more generally — is as much a character as any of the people, and I found myself recognizing places that I have visited there in the past. That was before Asbury Park was reborn into the thriving beach town it is now, and the book does a great job of capturing the renaissance from the “townie” not tourist point of view.

David is the eldest son of Joseph Larkin and his wife. Casey is the son of Joseph and his mistress, and Gabriella (or Gabby or Gabrielle or Ella, depending on her mood and the company she’s keeping) is the daughter of Joseph and the family maid. David and Casey grew up knowing each other and their relationship was uneasy but not hostile. But neither of them knew of Ella’s existence until after Joseph’s death, and it comes as a shock for each of them in a different way.

And really, that’s the book in a nutshell: Three half-siblings, trying to figure out who they are and how they relate to each other emotionally if not genetically, and what their place is in the world. As the “official” heir of a very rich man, David struggles in early adulthood to find his own footing in a world that demands nothing from him.

There was a cruelty in his having been so well provided for at birth; he’d been robbed of misery, robbed of loss, robbed of orphanage. There isn’t anything worse than to be born both rich and proud. There wasn’t any good direction in which he could go.

— Daniel H. Turtel, Greetings from Asbury Park

Casey has had trouble coming to terms with being the illegitimate son of a powerful man, and Joseph’s death doesn’t immediately soothe his raw edges. And Ella, an only child who knew and rejected her father — and her brothers while he was alive — finds herself taking tentative steps toward trying to learn how to be part of a larger family.

There are other compelling characters whose storylines brush up against the Larkin family drama, and not always for the better. The young woman who has loved Casey since high school but is too proud to chase after him. A Syrian Jewish family whose teenage children are not left unscathed by their encounters with the Larkins or another local family, the Kowolskis. I thought a couple of these B plots were left dangling a bit, but not egregiously so.

I’ll end with Ella’s thoughts as she struggles to come to terms with her father’s death:

The notion of death swirled around in her head where it mixed with the notion of love. For what was death without love? What did it matter when strangers, when seabirds, when dogs in the street, when coastal Moroccans with their Greetings banners died? And if that was so, and without love death was a thing without sharpnesss, then by refusing to love could one remove the fangs from death?

— Daniel H. Turtel

(Note: I received an advanced copy of this book from the NetGalley program in exchange for a fair and honest review.)

Spending more time with Olive & Mabel

Olive and Mabel are two Very Good dogs who live in Chelsea, England, with their human, sports commentator Andrew Cotter. They became famous on the internet during the pandemic when Cotter, at a loss for work with the sports world on hiatus, filmed a few short, humorous videos with his dogs. The viral sensation led to a first book, Olive, Mabel & Me (2020), which I read and reviewed last year. That book focused on the mechanics of how one becomes and reacts to becoming Twitter- and YouTube-famous with some ruminations on why people love dogs and tales of taking the girls hiking in the Scottish mountains. It was, as I said in that review, “gentle, often humorous and occasionally profound story of a man and his dogs.”

Dog Days: A Year with Olive & Mabel (2021) isn’t radically different, except perhaps the profundity is dialed up a bit and the narrative (as it unfolds during the pandemic’s easing) focuses more on the in-person reactions he gets when he’s out and about with Olive & Mabel (fawning isn’t too strong a word), and the pressure he sometimes felt to continually provide additional “content” (which he generally ignores unless a naturally good idea occurred to him).

Cotter comes across as a thoughtful, kind man who really is gaga about dogs in all the best ways, and I enjoyed hearing more about the bizarre situations he found himself in and his reluctant but touching reflections on the inevitable parting we must take from dogs who don’t live nearly long enough for our needs. If you somehow missed the viral video sensation, you might enjoy the dog talk in one or both of the books, but probably needn’t feel compelled to “collect the set.”

Solving mysteries during a pandemic

As The Locked Room (2022) opens, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is in London helping her father clear out her late mother’s things so his new wife can redecorate. The first chapter’s timestamp of February 2020 tells the reader what Ruth does not yet know — the COVID-19 pandemic is about to send all of them into lockdown. How on earth is there going to be a mystery, let along an investigation and a resolution, in the midst of such societal disruption?

Griffiths handles that conundrum with her usual skill, using the pandemic to explore the reactions of many of the familiar characters from past books to forced isolation. Of course the police, led by DCI Harry Nelson, are essential workers and not forced into lockdown, though they have to cope with social distancing and reduced opportunities for the whole team to gather. It’s unusual for the central mystery not to revolve in some way around one of Ruth’s excavations or examinations of discovered remains, but in this case Nelson and his team are faced with a series of apparent suicides whose details don’t quite add up.

Social distancing also doesn’t manage to prevent major developments in the relationship between Ruth and Harry, though once again we are left with a bit of a cliffhanger in this ongoing B-story even as the main case is tidily wrapped up. On the one hand, I kind of want this storyline to resolve sooner rather than later; on the other hand, Griffiths has so deftly invested all of the characters with nuance and complexity that I’m at a loss to know which resolution I would prefer.

This is one of my favorite series, and I’m happy that this entry lives up to expectations, even as some of the conventional methods of investigation are upended by the realities of the pandemic lockdown. Griffiths intends to wrap up Ruth’s story with The Last Remains, which will be published in the United States next April. I have full confidence that she will give Ruth, Harry, Cathbad and the rest of the crew the sendoff they deserve.

The complicated politics of The Man in Black

It’s always baffled me how anyone could listen to the lyrics of The Man in Black and not think that Johnny Cash had at least a very strong progressive streak in makeup. And yet, fans regularly castigate his daughter, songwriter and musician Rosanne Cash, on Twitter whenever she expresses a liberal viewpoint. “Your father would be ashamed of you,” is the general and often literal response from country music fans whose perceptions of her father’s political leanings are filtered through their own conservative viewpoint.

Then again, maybe I was doing the same thing — cherrypicking examples and ignoring the overall message in Cash’s music and actions. I didn’t think so, but then again I wouldn’t, would I? So it was with great interest I listened to an interview with Michael Stewart Foley, the author of Citizen Cash (2021) during a live-streamed session of last fall’s Johnny Cash Heritage Festival, and later bought his book. Foley does a great job of meticulously detailing the ways that Cash demonstrated his political viewpoints and how they evolved over the years, though always with a central touchstone — empathy — guiding each turn.

Songwriter Kris Kristofferson once wrote a song that many listeners thought was describing his good friend Johnny Cash:

He’s a poet and he’s a picker, he’s a prophet and he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

— Kris Kristofferson, The Pilgrim, Chapter 33

The line “walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction” seems particularly apt. Foley shows that Cash didn’t hew strictly to any particular political ideology, but rather came to his stance on various social and political issues through the lens of empathy — putting himself into the shoes of the person or identity group in question to unearth their essential humanity. That empathy-based values system explains how he could be supportive of Richard Nixon (who promised to end the war in Vietnam with the spectacularly euphemistic slogan “peace with honor”) and campaign for a Republican candidate for governor in his home state of Arkansas (who promised to enact comprehensive prison reform of a notoriously inhumane state correctional system).

Sometimes Cash’s empathy stemmed directly from his own childhood as the son of a poor sharecropper who nevertheless saw the worse plight of black sharecroppers no further away than across the road, and who listened to and appreciated black music (or “race music” as it was called then) at a time when white people weren’t supposed to admit to such things. His own (relatively minor) brushes with the law while in the throes of an addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates led him to perform countless free concerts at prisons around the country, including the most famous ones that were turned into live albums At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin.. At other times he immersed himself in reading historical accounts and talking to people to better understand their lives before writing a concept album like Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian or Blood, Sweat and Tears, a collection of songs about American working men, with an emphasis on black workers.

There are other aspects of Cash’s life that don’t fit neatly into the progressive box. His devout Christianity led him to be less than forthright in supporting equal rights for women; more than once he asserted that he believed in the Bible’s teaching that a woman’s role in life is to support her husband. And he was a steadfast supporter of Billy Graham, whose antisemitic and homophobic views were far from exemplary.

The main thing I took away from this book was a growing belief that there are an awful lot of people in this world on all sides of the political spectrum who would benefit from using empathy to guide their values and their votes. I’m going to do my best to take my own advice, even when (especially when) it’s a hard road to walk. And on the other side, I hope I can remember that very few people are entirely one thing or another, and show a little more grace when encountering people whose viewpoints differ from mine. In the end, we’re all walking contradictions.

The lessons of Chernobyl live on

I put Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (2019) on my TBR stack early in the pandemic, when I heard author Adam Higginbotham interviewed on Chris Hayes’ Why Is This Happening? podcast. The gist of the podcast was to talk about the parallels between the ways the Soviets completely botched their response to the Chernobyl disaster (secrecy, lies, denial, gaslighting people trying to sound the alarm, dragging their feet on remediation, etc.) with the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic (ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, sigh). It was a fascinating discussion but also made me want to learn more about an event that I remember (it happened when I was in my early 20s) but haven’t heard or read much about it since the actual event, when of course information was extremely limited (see list of reasons above).

The book itself has none of the coronavirus discussion because it was published pre-pandemic. But it’s a strong, thorough attempt to first walk through, minute by minute, exactly what happened on April 26, 1986, the Soviet response or lack thereof as the situation developed, and the current state of things at Chernobyl (again, no mention of the war in Ukraine or the Russians temporarily seizing control of a nuclear power plant earlier this year and the subsequent stirring up of radioactive material).

Nearly as fascinating was the section discussing all of the ways the very construction of Chernobyl was dogged by problems exacerbated by the Soviet system that rewarded pretending everything was going fine even as corners were being cut and safety measures slashed to meet unrealistic timelines and budgets. And the look back at previous nuclear accidents in the USSR, many of which never came to public attention until the Soviet Union fell apart, is chilling. The largest nuclear disaster before Chernobyl, in fact, was in the 1950s at a super-secret plutonium production facility, although the Soviets never admitted that it happened or even acknowledged they had a nuclear facility in the location until decades later. The Soviets were not alone in their extreme secrecy around nuclear events, though; there was a large fire and radiation release in 1957 in the United Kingdom that released masses of radiation across the UK and Europe. The full scale of the accident — which while severe did not approach the level of Chernobyl — was suppressed by the British government for 30 years.

As you might imagine, there is a lot of science in this book. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to follow it all, but Higginbotham does a good job of explaining in clear language exactly what happens in a nuclear reactor, how the Soviet design differs from those in the West, and the effects exposure to high levels of radiation have on living things — the most harrowing passages in the book, by far. The book does a good job contrasting what happened at Chernobyl with the causes of disasters at Windscale in the UK, Three Mile Island in the U.S., and Fukushima, Japan. Apparently, nuclear disasters are like Tolstoy’s families, each unhappy accident unhappy in its own way.

Higginbotham continued his reporting even into the 2010s, as he continued to visit with people who had survived the accident (or their living relatives in the case of those who died), detailing the ways in which it had affected and in many cases shortened their lives. And he seems particularly keen to make clear that while it was the operators in the control room on the night of the disaster who bore the brunt of the blame and criminal prosecution, the accident actually stemmed from a known flaw in the reactor design, which the Soviets had known since the very first reactor of that type they ever built, in the 1950s. The flaw was documented in academic papers and immediately suppressed instead of trying to fix it and make the reactors safer, which could have prevented Chernobyl from becoming a name that invokes fear and horror around the world.

I don’t suppose this book is for everyone; it’s grim and extremely difficult to read in many ways. But if you’re interested in learning more about how secrecy, coverups and an intolerance for honest feedback from subordinates can lead to immense tragedy, it’s well worth your time.

The Burglar Who Came Back One More Time

Gentleman burglar and bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr is back in The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown (2022) the 12th installment of this superb mystery series by Lawrence Block. It’s a book I never expected to read, because Block (who turned 84 earlier this year) has said for a while that he was done with the series. So when this book was announced, it was like a little gift to everyone who loves spending time with Bernie; his best friend Carolyn, a dog groomer; and his nemesis, police detective Ray Kirschmann.

For the uninitiated: Bernie’s MO has always been stealing luxury items like coin collections, jewelry and the like from rich people. He prefers to work in empty apartments, not being a fan of confronting an angry homeowner with a weapon, and yet in the cases Block chronicles he nonetheless manages to end up entangled in a murder and needs to solve the crime in order to remove suspicion from himself.

Early in this latest book, we learn that Bernie has gone straight, but not willingly: The modern surveillance state, with its CCTV cameras at every door and the increasing use of digital lock technology, means his considerable skill at lockpicking and charming/fooling doormen no longer work. Things aren’t much better on the antiquarian bookselling front, as increasingly his customers browse the shelves in his store before going online and ordering the books at a lower price from Amazon. His best customer, in fact, is a young man who used to sell bags of used books to Bernie, but now buys books from Bernie to sell online at a profit.

Bernie and Carolyn are lamenting these developments one night over drinks in a neat bit of exposition and setup that Block’s skillful dialogue and characterization saves from being kludgy. Bernie goes home to finish the book he’s currently reading, Fredric Brown’s What Mad Universe, which involves a character who is transported to a parallel universe.

The next morning Bernie slowly comes to the realization that somehow he himself (and Carolyn, thankfully) have been transported to a parallel universe, where most things in his beloved New York City are the same but other things are different. He realizes that the things that have changed are the very things he was complaining about the night before — there are no more surveillance cameras or massive online bookstores, and the Bowl-Mor has been restored to its rightful place in the neighborhood. Indeed, the stage is set for a return to Bernie’s former occupations, except for one thing: The Bernie Rhodenbarr who existed in this universe before our Bernie and Carolyn arrived has already pulled a job that resulted in murder, and this universe’s Ray Kirschmann is determined to finally tie Bernie to a crime.

The addition of a science-fiction element to the familiar Bernie mystery might seem a bit odd, but I was impressed at how Block seamlessly integrated the two genres. And it was a brilliant stroke of genius, because transporting beloved characters into a world that rolled back technological advances to a time when Bernie’s particular skillset could thrive might be the only way that readers could enjoy one more romp with Bernie & Co. (I suppose Block could have done something similar to what he did in his also superb but very different Matthew Scudder series, and have present-day Bernie telling a story from the past, but why repeat oneself when one has a chance to create something wholly original?) I also appreciated that the parallel universe wasn’t just a gimmick to let Bernie once again do his thing; the over-arching plot is one that could only exist in a parallel universe where our Bernie finds himself on the hook for a crime committed by another version of himself. Neat!

Is the ending perhaps a little too pat, and are some thorny plot points somewhat glossed over in the wrap-up? I’d have to say that’s a fair observation, but at the same time (in a parallel universe?) it just didn’t matter at all. Bernie was back, perhaps for the last time (I’ve learned not to count out Block’s amazing productivity) and this longtime reader was just happy to see him. No gun in my pocket, I swear.

‘Rally Round the Flag’ serves up Cold War satire

Reading Rally Round the Flag, Boys! (1957) was another blast from the past, as I remember reading this mid-20th century satire when I was much too young to really understand a lot of the humor, but enjoying the fact that I was reading something that felt “grown-up”.

Max Shulman (who also wrote The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which the classic TV show was based on), skewers the fictional Connecticut town of Putnam’s Landing, which in the post-World War II era is transitioning from flinty Yankee village to bedroom commuter for New York City commuters. He spares none of the groups that make up the social strata of the town: the old-money original residents and their variously sullen and perky offspring, the flood of Italian immigrants who make up the working and service class, and the hopelessly suburban commuters. The three groups come together in spectacular fashion to do battle at the annual Fourth of July festivities with a fourth set of interlopers: soldiers who populate a new missile base in town.

I liked least the sexist humor about husbands being helpless to resist their wives’ demands. The ethnic humor didn’t seem particularly offensive to me, since I grew up in an Italian family not far away either in distance or time that would have fit in perfectly among the Italians of Putnam’s Landing. Shulman is even-handed in his ridicule, with every group coming in for their fair share of digs, which keeps any of it from feeling like punching down.

I’m glad I re-read this as part of a shared read with another member of LibraryThing. While it didn’t seem quite as hilariously transgressive as I remember it from my childhood, there were still some laugh-out-loud bits that made it worth the time.

Ian Rutledge plays a deadly ‘Game of Fear’

In 1921 England, Scotland Yard sends Inspector Ian Rutledge to Essex to investigate an unusual murder: There is a witness to the crime, but no body has been found. And the witness, an eminently respectable middle-aged woman who lives in the local manor house after losing both her husband and her son to World War I, recognized the murderer — a soldier who died several years earlier during the war.

Readers of the series will instantly understand from that summary the potential this case has to be an emotional land mine for Rutledge: He came back from fighting in France with a severe case of shell shock and the voice of his dead sergeant, Hamish, constantly in his head. How will be cope with investigating a murder apparently committed by a ghost against an invisible victim?

This 24th entry in the series is excellent, skillfully weaving the actual murder investigation into an examination of WWI’s lingering effects on the home front and the people left to pick up the pieces in a world devoid of so many of their loved ones. There’s also a subplot involving a woman Rutledge carries an unacknowledged torch for, which hints that there may be some further development on that front in future books.

About those future books: The preface to this one is an homage from one-half of the writing team that makes up the Charles Todd pseudonym, to his mother, who was the other half and has recently died. The ending of the book is not a cliffhanger that would all but assure another entry, but it’s also not a neat tidying up of all the dangling plot lines, either. So I live in hope that come next February, I’ll be happily spending time again with Inspector Rutledge for the 25th time.

Heir inapparent in ‘Alington Inheritance’

A young woman grows up in an English village knowing that she is the illegitimate daughter of the heir to the wealthy Forbes family. Sadly he is killed in World War II before he can marry her (comparatively) lower-class mother. When the mother dies giving birth to Jenny, the child is brought up by her parent’s old governess, who cares for her with much love and affection. But when the governess is felled by a hit-and-run accident, she manages before she dies to whisper to Jenny that her mother and father really were married — making Jenny the heiress to the Forbes estate and not the poor relation who is condescendingly offered a job looking after the family’s young children. But Jenny has to wonder: Is it true about her parents? How can she prove it? And who else knows the truth — and what would they be willing to do to make sure it stays a secret?

I found myself thoroughly enjoying this entry, perhaps because it’s the penultimate book in a series I’ve been working my way through since 2017. It’s true that there really isn’t much of a mystery here; it’s quite clear early on who the villain is, and the victim sadly is not one of the patented Wentworth “they had it coming” variety. But Jenny is an appealing main character, and the obligatory romance is not as eye-rollingly silly as they sometimes are in this series. And who could fail to be charmed by young ruffian Dicky Pratt, who turns out to hold the key that Miss Silver, in concert with her willing acolyte, Detective Inspector Frank Abbott, needs to unlock the solution?