Our Staff Favorites for September
Here are a few titles we've read recently and enjoyed over at the Mysterious Bookshop. Generally, these recommendations are written for our newsletter, which is available via email or physical subscription, as well as directly through our website here. We hope these books pique your interests as they did ours!
Largely because of my new publishing company, Penzler Publishers, and its imprint, American Mystery Classics, I’ve been reading quite a few wonderful vintage titles for the past few months. It would be too obvious to choose my favorite of the month from our first list; the books are described elsewhere in the newsletter and all six are my favorite! Instead, I picked up this wonderful, very English mystery story which is nearly perfect of its kind. It is set at Christmas-time in Warbeck Hall, a grand old country house. Naturally, a heavy snow storm cuts the holiday party,
rife with seething angers, jealousies, and frustrations, off from all communication with the outside world. A policeman from Scotland Yard is among the guests, sent to protect a cabinet minister, and so is the head of a fascist organization, as well as Lady Camilla, who has set her sights on him. Add the wife of the politician for whom she has ambitions, a perfect butler, a scholar working on the family’s papers, and the dying head of the family who has invited them for what he knows will be his last Christmas. Poison takes the first victim, though dinner is still impeccably served—and on time. Hare brilliantly disguises the identity of the murderer and does it with a subtle humor that will have readers smiling throughout the novel, if not laughing out loud. On the morning after the murder, one of the guests comes down for breakfast. She says, “Goodness knows, I don’t feel capable of eating anything on a morning like this!...No, don’t bother, I can help myself....What is that under the cover?...Oh, well, perhaps a small kipper, if you don’t mind. After all, as I always tell my husband, one must keep one’s strength up.” PB. $14.95.
Most crime novels start with a mystery and end with a solution. Cherry does it backwards. Our narrator begins as a relatively innocent kid, and ends as an Iraq War veteran addicted to heroin and robbing banks. It is hard to view Cherry as purely fiction since its author, Nico Walker, is a veteran, and a former heroin addict currently serving time in prison for bank robbery.
The narrator of Cherry is not saintly, apologetic, or even particularly sympathetic, but he is achingly human. We join him in his descent to hell overseas. His return to the States is not as a glorious victor, but as a haunted shell seeking any relief from pain. Not all will relate as he gets deeper and deeper into drugs and crime. None can deny the power of his pain.
Why wallow in this misery? Though the world of Cherry is ugly, it’s our world and its problems aren’t solving themselves. Plus the writing is a blast: a knowing irreverent stream of absurdity, profanity and heartache. While the war scenes are inescapable nightmares, Tim O’Brien colliding with Denis Johnson, the crime scenes are casually naturalistic. Cherry doesn’t give us the solving of a crime, but the creation of a criminal. Because crime is nothing compared to war. HC. $26.95.
Many people have seen the television series The Untouchables, and films like Scarface (both versions), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and even Boardwalk Empire, but how many know the real story of mob boss Al Capone and Prohibition enforcer Eliot Ness? There is a strange tendency to romanticize gangland violence; similarly, folks like to minimize Ness’ contribution to law enforcement during the ‘noble experiment.’ But what if the two were human beings, subject to the usual foibles and follies? In Scarface and the Untouchable, by Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz, the authors strip away decades of mythmaking and self-serving narratives, using thousands of hours worth of research by themselves and others, to tell the true story. Both Ness and Capone were single-minded in pursuit of their goals, whatever they may be; both were convinced that they were in the right; and both have been ill-served by history. The passage of time tends to obscure the realities of the street, and here we learn about some hard truths: Capone apparently did beat a rival with a baseball bat; Ness really was dedicated and incorruptible; and Chicago and its environs, especially Cicero, Illinois, were places where conventional law enforcement hopelessly broke down, due in part to the ease of bribing low-paid local officials, and in part due to the utter ineptitude of the Hoover administration. Citizens’ committees made some difference in turning the tides, but the brilliant, innovative strategy of busting gangsters for income tax evasion was very successful and driven by the Supreme Court decision that even illegal income was taxable.
Take a trip back to the Depression-era Windy City, where death by machine gun lurked around every corner, the Prohibition law was simply ignored as a joke, and the federal government had a very long road to regain the public trust. HC. $29.99.
The theft of masterpieces from the Gardner Museum in 1990 is the premise of this fabulous novel, but the author ingeniously stages it in 1946. Three men foolishly rob the wrong card game at the derelict Carlesgate Hotel, and as punishment are forced to take part in the theft. We jump to 2014, and a murder at the now expensive Charlesgate. In 1986, the building is owned by Emerson College, and student Tommy Donnelly is writing the history of the building, bringing him to the attention of one of the thieves. And so it goes, jumping ahead decades, then jumping back, each chapter introducing colorful characters, each with the idea of getting rich. How it all plays out is priceless. HC. $22.99.
Thanks for reading. Check in next month for a new set of staff favorites!