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LIVES LAID AWAY by Stephen Mack Jones: Book Review

In April of 2017 I reviewed Stephen Mack Jones’ debut novel, August Snow, and showered it with praise.  It was a look into the underside of Detroit that I found totally realistic and gritty, yet with an undercurrent of hope.  I had the same feeling reading Mr. Jones’ second novel, Lives Laid Away, which again follows August Snow in his post-police life.

Unjustly fired from the city’s police force and the recipient of a twelve million dollar settlement for the wrongful dismissal, August continues his attempt to revitalize his neighborhood, Mexicantown.  The son of an African-American policeman and a Mexican mother, both deceased, August knows only too well the discrimination facing both ethnicities.  Now the problems of immigrants, both legal and illegal, have multiplied, and the brutalized body of a teenage Hispanic girl brings August into conflict with both gangsters and the federal government’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

People in August’s neighborhood are scared, and they have reason to be.  ICE agents are following anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant (e.g., anyone with brown skin).  Easily-identifiable cars belonging to ICE are cruising the streets, making immigrants afraid to go to work, school, or even church.  And then the body of the above-mentioned girl is thrown off the Ambassador Bridge, midway between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, dressed in the gown and wig of the seventeenth-century French Queen Marie Antoinette.

Her body, without identification, bears witness to multiple rapes and a variety of drugs.  Dr. James Robert Falconi of the Wayne County Coroner’s Office, known to his friends as Bobby, asks August for his help in finding out the girl’s identity.  “Eighteen or nineteen….Somebody’s daughter,” he tells August, showing how the teenager’s death has affected him.

Tomás and Elena Gutierrez are August’s closest friends.  Elena has been an advocate for the Mexicantown population for years.  Tomás is reluctant for his wife to see the photo of the dead girl that August has brought with him to their home, knowing from past experience that, without meaning to, August brings trouble with him.

Indignant, Elena declares that they know that she’s her own woman and doesn’t need anyone’s permission to see or do anything, but when she sees the photo she becomes tearful.  She knew the girl and is heartbroken to see what happened to her.  Then Elena admits that she has been carrying a gun in her purse because of hateful and vitriolic threats she’s received over the past six or eight months.  Her advocacy for illegal immigrants, Hispanic and others, has brought a death sentence to her door.

Lives Laid Away is an all-too-timely novel about the immigration crisis facing the United States.  Like other mysteries I’ve recently reviewed (Bone on Bone by Julia Keller and Shell Game by Sara Paretsky), Stephen Mack Jones has taken an issue directly from today’s headlines and created an outstanding mystery.  The reader is able to feel the terror of the illegal immigrants as their dreams disappear and with that their hopes for making new lives in the United States disappear as well.

Stephen Mack Jones is an outstanding writer and with this, his second novel, he lets his readers hope that there will be many more stories about August Snow.

You can read more about Stephen Mack Jones at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.



TALKING TO THE DEAD by Harry Bingham: Book Review

Sometimes a book is so good that when you finish reading it you simply have to close your eyes and relish it for a moment. Talking to the Dead is one of those books.

This is the first mystery I’m blogging about that takes place in modern Wales; the only other Welsh book on my blog is One Corpse Too Many, one of the Brother Cadfael twelfth-century mysteries by the late Ellis Peters.

Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths is an honors graduate in philosophy from Cambridge University and a relatively new member of the Cardiff police force. She already has a bit of a reputation for unorthodox behavior–when a suspect made some inappropriate advances to her, she broke his kneecap and three of his fingers.

Two bodies are found in a shabby, seemingly abandoned house in the city.  They are identified as Janet Mancini, a part-time prostitute with a drug habit, and her six-year-old daughter April.  In the midst of the squalor the police come across a credit card belonging to Brendan Rattigan, a wealthy businessman who died in a plane crash several months before the book opens.  What could this card be doing in Janet Mancini’s possession?

The narrative is in the first person, in Fiona’s voice.  We know almost from the beginning there is something off, not quite right about her. She’s not able to show emotions, and only by viewing what those around her are showing is she able to approximate the appropriate ones–fear, happiness, surprise.  And, to the best of her memory, she has never in her life cried.  In fact, she doesn’t know what tears would feel like–would they be hot, would they hurt?  She simply doesn’t know.

Fiona is sent with another officer to interview Cardiff’s prostitutes, hoping for a clue into Janet’s murder.  The women are initially reluctant to speak, not having had good experiences with the police, but they open up to Fiona a bit more willingly after a second prostitute is murdered.  They have to decide which is more frightening–talking to the police and hoping for protection or waiting for the killer to strike again.

Fiona is also investigating the case of a former police detective who will soon be on trial for embezzlement.  She thinks there’s a connection between his case and the murders, but no one else seems to share her feelings.  So she’s working overtime to follow her instincts and trying to connect the cases.

Fiona Griffiths is a remarkable character.  She’s smart, intuitive, courageous.  She’s trying to understand who she is, both personally and professionally, but she is plagued by frequent night terrors that she can’t explain, even to herself.  There were two years in her mid-teens when she had a complete mental breakdown, and neither she nor the mental health professionals who tried to help were successful in figuring out the cause or causes.

Following Fiona as she tries to deal with the blank spots in her memory is an important part of the novel.  When the book ends and the explanation given, I promise that you will not be unmoved.

The other characters in Talking to the Dead are wonderful too.  Her superior officer, her colleague who might become something more, her loving parents are all beautifully and realistically drawn.  This is a mystery but also a story of a young woman trying hard to find her place in the world.  It’s a remarkable debut.

You can read more about Harry Bingham at his web site.