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CONVICTION by Julia Dahl: Book Review

Once again Julia Dahl brings readers to Jewish Brooklyn, but this time with a twist.  It’s the Crown Heights section of the borough, a neighborhood that years ago was totally Jewish and now is an uneasy mix of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Blacks, the neighborhood that was the scene of a riot in 1991 and still bears the violent scars of those three days.

Rebekah Roberts, a reporter at the sleazy tabloid the New York Trib, is looking for a news story to write, one that she’s hoping will get her a boost up the career ladder.  At a cocktail party she connects with Amanda Button, who writes the Homicide Blog, a newsletter that tracks every homicide occurring in New York City.  Rebekah and Amanda arrange to meet a couple of days after the event, and Amanda offers Rebekah the opportunity to go through letters she’s received from prisoners in the state’s penitentiaries who declare their innocence.  Perhaps there’s a real story in there, both women think.

Of course, she tells Rebekah, everyone who writes her tells her he’s been unjustly punished.  However, given that many of these men were convicted in the 80s and 90s, when DNA technology was in its infancy and the murder rate was soaring, it’s certainly possible, Amanda continues, that some of the cases weren’t investigated properly.  So Rebekah takes home several boxes of letters and is intrigued by one in particular.

DeShawn Perkins was a teenager when he was convicted of murdering his foster family–mother, father, and young sister.  At first he protested his innocence but couldn’t offer any alibi for the time the crime was committed; later, after brutal questioning that included the hint that if he didn’t confess his younger “brother” might be charged with the crime, DeShawn said he had committed the murders.  But in his letter to Amanda, he refutes his confession, tells her his alibi, and asks for her help.  He closes the letter by saying, “…somebody else killed my family and I’m paying for his crime.”

Conviction is the third in the Rebekah Roberts’ series, and it’s as strong a novel as the previous two.  Rebekah is a young woman with a past that will not let go, including the many questions she has for her mother, who abandoned her when she was a baby.  Even now that she has reunited with her mother, her mother still refuses to explain why she fled New York and left her husband and infant Rebekah behind.  So perhaps Rebekah’s choice of a career, asking questions and trying to find answers to things people would prefer to keep hidden, is a reaction to the secrets in her own life.

Julia Dahl’s characters are like people you know–people trying to do their best but with problems and emotions that get in the way.  They are all too human, and thus they make the reader respond not only to the excellent plot in this book but to the people in it, foibles and all.

Conviction is a moving story of the collision of people and cultures and the devastation that misunderstandings can bring.  It strongly resonated with me because I grew up in Crown Heights, although I left it years before this book takes place.  I know the neighborhood streets and lived only four or five blocks from where the riots began.  But you don’t need to have that personal involvement to become totally engrossed in this outstanding mystery.

You can read more about Julia Dahl at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.

 

 

ANONYMOUS SOURCES by Mary Louise Kelly: Book Review

Alexandra James, red-haired Cambridge journalist, is always working on a story.  That’s how she keeps her life in order, because if she has too much free time, the memories come barreling back.

Alexandra is employed by the New England Chronicle, and her beat is education.  In a city with Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to say nothing of other universities across the river (Boston University, Boston College, Simmons, and others too numerous to count), there’s always something going on.  But the new assignment she’s given by the paper’s editor, Hyde Rawlins, is the most intriguing and dangerous one she’s ever covered.

Waiting for a friend at a Cambridge bar, Alex gets a text sent to all Chronicle reporters that a body has been found outside the Eliot House residence at Harvard and asking for a reporter to get there ASAP.  Since Alex is practically around the corner, she texts the editor that she’ll go.

Never a shrinking violet, Alex manages to get past the police lines and into Eliot House but isn’t able to get much information.  Later the university puts out a statement that an alumnus has fallen to his death from one of the House windows; the body is that of Thomas Carlyle, son of the legal adviser to the president of the United States.

Because Thom had just returned from a year at Cambridge University in England and Alex had also been a student there, she convinces Hyde to send her to England to follow the story, to find out why this bright and well-liked young man fell to his death only hours after he returned from his graduate year abroad.  Finding the answers to this question proves much harder and more dangerous than Alex had supposed.

At Cambridge, Alex meets Petronella Black, Thom’s former girlfriend.  She’s a “right piece of work,” according to the “bedder,” or chambermaid, at the college.  When Alex knocks on Petronella’s door there’s a man in her room, Lucien Sly, and it’s very obvious that the two had been in bed together.  It’s only three days after Thom’s death, Alex thinks.  Not much heartbreak here.

The plot line takes the reader from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Cambridge, England, with a stop in Pakistan along the way.  The characters include the wealthy and politically connected Carlyle family, the glamorous and spoiled Petronella Black, the attractive and aristocratic Lucian Sly, Alex’s demanding yet compassionate editor Hyde Rawlins, and the mysterious Pakistani scientist Nadeem Siddiqui.  Each has a distinctive voice and an important presence in the novel.

Alex James is a very appealing heroine.  She’s tough, definitely not shy, and extremely confident in the way she goes about getting a story.  But deep inside her there’s a secret that she’s hidden from nearly everyone.  And, as every mystery reader knows, secrets have a way of not staying hidden.  They often emerge at the most inauspicious times.

Mary Louise Kelly is a broadcast journalist and has the background to make Alex a true-to-life protagonist.  The plot is totally believable, as are the characters.  Anonymous Sources is the first book in what I hope will be a long-running series.

You can read more about Mary Louise Kelly at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FALL FROM GRACE by Wayne Arthurson: Book Review

Every once in a while I open a first novel by an author and know within a few pages that I’m going to love that book. That happened to me when I read the opening chapter of Fall From Grace.

Wayne Arthurson’s protagonist is Leo Desroches, a journalist in Edmonton, Alberta.  He’s half Cree Aboriginal and half French Canadian, a man who takes medicine for an unnamed emotional illness, a divorced father of two who hasn’t seen his children in five years, and a compulsive gambler.  There’s only one problem, or at least it’s his most troubling one–whenever he’s stressed or trying to avoid his gambling compulsion, he robs banks.  Some people do yoga, Desroches steals money.

He’s also a first-rate newspaper reporter, trying to take advantage of a lucky break to get his career back on track.  He’s gotten another chance with an Edmonton daily because years earlier he had worked with the paper’s current managing editor at a small town weekly.  Shortly before the novel opens Desroches was a scab who crossed union picket lines during a month-long strike.  When the strike was over, he was invited to stay on as a reporter on the police beat.

As the book begins, Desroches is viewing the body of a young Indian woman who was strangled. Although assured by the police detective in charge of the case that all murder victims are equal and all police efforts are expended to find the murderer, Desroches believes that when the victim is “known to the police for her high-risk life style” (p. c. talk for being a prostitute), there is the feeling that she was partly responsible for her own death.

The more Desroches finds out about Grace, the murdered young woman, the more involved he gets.  After some additional research, he believes that the city of Edmonton has been stalked over a period of years by a serial killer whose victims are prostitutes, mostly Native Americans.  The police decry this theory, mainly because the city has never had a serial killer before; the murder of Grace Cardinal seems to fall through the cracks.

Following this story is proving hazardous to Desroches’ mental and physical health. During the course of the novel he’s beaten up and Tasered; so, of course, to relieve his stress, he robs two banks.  But nothing stops him from continuing to follow the story of the dead women.

Desroches is also trying to make amends to his wife and children for his abandonment of them.  Although he respects his wife and her ability to create a warm and safe home for their two children without him, he calls her in hopes that she will allow him a brief meeting with the children.  His evening with his adolescent son is one of the most touching in the novel.

Wayne Arthurson puts the reader into a big city in the Canadian prairie.  It has some of the problems that similar-size American cities have, but there are differences too.  Arthurson makes the most of his own ethnic background of Cree and French-Canadian parents by giving Desroches the same mix.  Desroches is battling a lot of demons, not all of which we understand, but we do understand that he’s pretty much an outsider in this Western Canadian place.  That can make it easier to be an objective journalist and make it harder to simply be a man.

You can read more about Wayne Arthurson at this web site.

ROGUE ISLAND by Bruce DeSilva: Book Review

“Dear Bruce, MALICE is a nice little story.  In fact, it could serve as the outline for a novel.  Have you considered this?”

Imagine receiving such positive feedback for a short story you wrote.  Now imagine receiving that note from Evan Hunter, a/k/a Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct mysteries.  Of course you would have no choice but to write that novel.

Well, it took Bruce DeSilva more than twenty years to do that, but the result is Rogue Island.  It’s worth the wait.

Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the United States based on area, but apparently it’s quite large in terms of corruption, political chicanery, active mob bosses, and the like. Liam Mulligan, who answers only to his last name, is a reporter for a Providence paper which is quickly shrinking the size of its staff due to lowered circulation.  But Mulligan is a newspaperman through and through, and even though he’s worried about his job, he’s more worried about the rash of fires plaguing his old neighborhood, Mount Hope.  As the book opens the fires have destroyed unoccupied buildings only, but soon things take a turn for the worse as two squatters are killed in an abandoned house in the neighborhood.

Arson seems the only explanation, but Mulligan can’t figure out a reason.  Some of the house are vacant, some are occupied, and at least five different companies are the insurers.  There doesn’t appear to be a reason for anyone to want Mount Hope aflame.

Polecki and Roselli, the city’s inept arson investigators, aren’t making any progress.  Called “Dumb and Dumber” by insurance investigators, their animosity toward Mulligan seems to be more important to them than looking into the causes of the fires.

Mulligan’s personal and professional lives are messy. He’s romantically involved with Veronica Tang, a reporter on the newspaper, but he’s being stalked via his cell phone by his soon-to-be ex-wife.  At work he’s been saddled with the son of the newspaper’s publisher, a recent Columbia J-School grad who needs a mentor.  And his editor keeps assigning him fluff pieces instead of letting him work on the arson case.  Doggie stories, anyone?

Then comes the night when five fires on four streets are set simultaneously. That makes it less certain that a pyromaniac is setting the fires, as there’s no way he could watch them all at the same time.  But where does that leave the investigation?

Bruce DeSilva’s first mystery is utterly absorbing. After forty-one years as an investigative journalist, part of that on the Providence Journal, his prose is tight and honed.  There’s not an extra line in the book.  His characters are believable, whether they’re good or bad.  And when the good characters got hurt or worse in the story, I felt a rush of sympathy as if they were real people.

Publishers Weekly named Rogue Island as one of the top ten first mysteries of 2010, and it won an Edgar for best first novel of the year.

You can read more about Bruce DeSilva and watch an interview with him at his web site,