Thursday, March 12, 2015

Spring Preview 2015: Part Eight

Some of the biggest mysteries for me right now have more to do with book availability than book contents.

There is no book titled The Strange Publication of the Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, but there should be. You might remember that I'm crazy about Harry Bingham's series about Fiona Griffiths, a police detective in Cardiff, Wales, who has a very unusual psychiatric background (Cotard's syndrome; check it out), a mysterious family history she's trying to uncover, an uneasy relationship with authority figures, and an absolute passion for defending the helpless victims of violent crime. You can read more about Fiona and her entertaining attempts to live on what she calls Planet Normal here.

I read the first two books in the Fiona series, Talking to the Dead (Delacorte, 2012) and Love Story, With Murders (Delacorte, 2014), and I was anxiously awaiting the third book, The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, which I'd read was to be published in the US this spring. I got impatient and ordered my copy from the UK (Orion, 2014), but I wanted to be sure to let our Read Me Deadly friends know about the US publication. This is where things became mysterious.

I discovered that without my having read anything about it anywhere, The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths slipped out at the end of January in the US, apparently self-published (Sheep Street Books is listed as the Kindle publisher and Amazon's CreateSpace for the paperback). I wondered what the heck had happened here. Previous books in the series had received favorable reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major review outlets, so why didn't Bingham's traditional US publisher publish the new book?

Bingham's website supplied the answer. He has several long blog posts on the subject, but the gist is that his US publisher was so noncommittal about whether and when they'd put out The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths that he finally just published it himself. Good for him, but I have to say I'm mystified as to why any US publisher wouldn't be eager to publish this series. I'm constantly amazed by how the James Patterson factory can get anything published anytime they want, but truly excellent writers like Bingham and Christopher Fowler struggle to get their books published in the US. Do US publishers think
Americans are too provincial to want to read British writers, or do the publishers just not know good writing if it bites them in the butt (or bum, as our friends across the pond would say)? As I say, it's a mystery.

Alright, enough about all this publishing headache. Let's get on with the book so that you can buy it and read it! When a payroll fraud case leads to murder and blossoms into what appears to be a far-flung criminal enterprise, DC Fiona Griffiths goes undercover as an office worker. Calling herself Fiona Grey, she tries to learn the scope of this crime network and who is responsible for the murder. Fiona normally has some trouble fully realizing emotions and inhabiting Planet Normal. Now, by taking on another persona, will she lose the grip she had on her Fiona Griffiths life? And whatever her psychological state, will she manage to stay alive as she gets closer to the truth about the long and violent reach of the fraudsters?

I've complained many times before about the unconscionably long time after UK publication that Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit series books finally come out in the US. It's often a complete mystery when the US title will appear, which is so not good enough for fans of the PCU. The strange, but welcome saving grace for audiobook lovers is that the books are usually available on audio in the US at or near the same time the print book comes out in the UK. And so it is this time around, with the 12th book in the series, Bryant & May and the Burning Man (Doubleday (UK), March 26, Whole Story Audio Books, May 1).

The new book begins with mass protests in London's streets in response to a banking scandal. A homeless man is killed, burned to death between the protesters and the police. The PCU is called in when it becomes clear that some mystery killer is targeting victims for fiery death. With Christopher Fowler, you know that along with the investigation and the eccentricities of the PCU's members, you'll be treated to some fascinating history of the city of London. In this case, the book description tells us our history lesson will involve "mob rule, corruption, rebellion, and the legend of Guy Fawkes."

Christopher Fowler also writes that Bryant & May and the Burning Man is the final book in the "second arc" of the series, and:

several members of the PCU team reach dramatic turning points in their lives––but the most personal tragedy is yet to come, for as the race to bring down a cunning killer reaches its climax, Arthur Bryant faces his own devastating day of reckoning. ‘I always said we’d go out with a hell of a bang,’ warns Bryant . . . 

Uh oh. I don't like the sound of this. Now I'm so worried about the PCU team, especially Arthur Bryant, that I might not be able to wait for the audiobook.

If you're like me and you can't get enough of Christopher Fowler's writing, keep in mind that he writes non-series books, which are more horror-oriented, and which you can find listed here. I read Fowler's memoir, Paperboy (Bantam, 2010), last year, which I highly recommend if you're interested to see how he got the way he is, as a person and a writer. If you like your hits of Fowler to be more frequent, you can't beat his blog, which is filled with book news, talk about movies and wonderful bits of London history.

Another British writer who isn't as celebrated in the US as he should be is Christopher Brookmyre. I will never, ever forget the experience of reading the first pages of Quite Ugly One Morning (Little, Brown and Co., 1996), the debut book in his Jack Parlabane series. I was in Stratford, Ontario, with family, to go see some plays. I stopped by the marvelous John Callan Books and asked the proprietor about crime fiction books that might not be stocked by bookstores in the US. He handed me that book, but said I absolutely had to read the first couple of pages before deciding whether to buy it. Brilliant advice! The first scene in that book is a description of the most repulsive crime scene ever, and the police detectives' reaction to it. But if you have a strong stomach and a warped sense of humor, it's gold. I bought all the Brookmyre books the bookshop had.

Brookmyre has written several non-Parlabane books, and I have to say my reactions to them range from mild enthusiasm to near indifference. But now, eight years since the last Jack Parlabane novel, he's back, in Dead Girl Walking (Atlantic Monthly Press, May 5). Parlabane started as a crusading journalist, but now, as a result of events involving a phone hacking scandal, he's out of that business and sleeping with one eye open to watch out for his enemies. He's asked to trace Heike Gunn, the missing lead singer of a group called Savage Earth Heart. The narrative shifts between Jack and the group's newest member, Monica, who keeps a diary of her tour of European capitals with the group.

Although most UK readers say you don't need to read the other Parlabane novels to enjoy this new book, one reviewer recommends reading the short story The Last Day of Christmas: The Fall of Jack Parlabane (Little, Brown Book Group, 2014) to learn just how Jack got to be in the dire situation he's in as Dead Girl Walking opens.

Another UK book that's been hard to get in the US is now coming––after 35 years. It's Ted Lewis's GBH (Soho Press, April 23), a stripped-down-to-the-bone, ultra-noir tale of London crime chief George Fowler, who descends into paranoia and extreme violence as he tries to find out who in his operation is an embezzler and a traitor.

Ted Lewis, who died at age 42, is best known as the British author of Get Carter (originally titled Jack's Return Home), which was made into the classic Michael Caine movie of the same name (and pointlessly remade with Sylvester Stallone). But some claimed that GBH (1980), his last novel, was his real masterpiece. It's been hard to know if that claim is accurate, because the book went out of print almost right away and it was never published in the US.

If you like noir, you might give this one a try. But be warned: this truly is noir, not a hard-boiled detective story. Very bad things happen, and to Sam Spade, Fowler would be like something he'd want to scrape off his shoe.

How about we move on to a British author who has not had trouble getting books published––and pronto––in the US? It's Kate Atkinson, and her upcoming book is not a new entry in her popular Jackson Brodie series. Disappointed? I'm not, because it's a completely unexpected gift, a sequel to her bestselling and thoroughly engrossing Life After Life (2014). I was obsessed for weeks with Ursula Todd's many lives in that book. I found a friend who was almost as fascinated and we spent all of one evening parsing two chapters in the book that are almost, but not quite identical, trying to tease out all the hidden meanings in the differences between the two chapters. I won't say our study magically opened the door to all the mysteries of Life After Life, but I will say that the book is so subtle, with so many possibilities and layers of meaning that it rewards that kind of deep study––after you've first enjoyed the book's sheer adventure and beauty. How many books can you say that about?

I think Life After Life will be a book that lasts and will cement Kate Atkinson's reputation as one of the most talented writers of our day. Her upcoming book, A God in Ruins (Little, Brown and Company, May 5) supplements the story of Ursula Todd's 20th century with that of her younger brother, Teddy. We saw Teddy in Ursula's childhood, and his fate as an RAF pilot during World War II is one of the intriguing plot points of Life After Life. Still, I never saw it coming that Atkinson would shift her focus to Teddy in a new book. Her website says: "For all Teddy endures in battle, his greatest challenge will be to face living in a future he never expected to have. " Now there's a hook to grab me. This will be a book I'll start reading the minute I get my hands on it.

Debut novelist Stephen Kelly isn't British, but he joins that long line of Americans whose love for traditional British mystery compels them to set their novels in the UK. Kelly's The Language of the Dead: A World War II Mystery (Pegasus Books, April 15) is set in the peaceful Hampshire village of Quimby, where it seems all there is to worry about is whether the Luftwaffe bombing raids will target the nearby Spitfire fighter plane factory. But that's before old Will Blackwell––who is rumored to have sold his soul to the devil many years before––is found murdered with a scythe through his neck and a pitchfork in his chest.

That's just the start of a series of violent murders in the village, and the call goes out for the crusty Detective Inspector Thomas Lamb to put a stop to the mayhem. The constant bombing raids bring back terrible memories of his experiences in the Great War, and he worries about the safety of his daughter in Quimby. His investigation, with his team of David Wallace and Harry Rivers, reveals a disturbing village history of witch hunts. Maybe this will be a treat for three audiences: fans of supernatural mysteries, World War II mysteries and village mysteries. I do know that Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly are all encouraging, and that's good enough for me.

How about something completely different? Hallie Ephron's Night Night, Sleep Tight (William Morrow & Co., March 24) is set in Beverly Hills, far away from the UK. In 1985, Deirdre Unger grudgingly agrees to help her retired screenwriter father, Arthur, get his house ready for sale, but when she arrives, she finds him dead, floating in the pool. From accident, his death is quickly reclassified as a murder and police question Deirdre closely.

Deirdre soon finds that her father has appointed her his literary executor and, as she goes through the pages of his unpublished memoir, she is transported to tragic events of two decades earlier, when her best friend apparently killed her movie star mother's husband. Deirdre's memories are sketchy, because she was in a car accident that night that left her with a withered leg. But she was there in the house that night, as were her parents. Is Arthur's murder connected to that long-ago Hollywood killing, and what might be dislodged from the recesses of Deirdre's memory as she reads Arthur's memoir?

That Hollywood murder sounds a lot like the 1958 killing of movie star Lana Turner's lover, the young and mobbed-up Johnny Stompanato, which was found to have been committed by her teenage daughter, who was attempting to protect her mother from a violent attack by Stompanato. Ephron is one of four daughters (including the late Nora Ephron) of parents who were screenwriters in Hollywood. She was born in Los Angeles and spent some of her youth in a house not far from Lana Turner's place. I hope this personal connection to the Hollywood of 50 years ago will take us back to those days in this story.

Will ice out day arrive before April does?

1 comment:

  1. Sister Mary, I'm interested in the Harry Bingham books and am wondering if it's necessary to start at the beginning with Talking to the Dead.

    The crime scene description in the first Chris Brookmyre book about Jack Parlabane (Quite Ugly One Morning) is the funniest most obscene thing I have ever read. I'll read that short story before I Brookmyre's newest.