The Wild Life
Joe Brody, aka “The Bouncer,” actually holds a more important position in the New York Mafia than that title might suggest: He serves as the in-house “sheriff” for an organization not exactly noted for enlisting the aid of conventional law enforcement. Indeed, Joe even wears a sheriff’s badge, though not the bronze sort that gets pinned to an elected official’s khaki shirt pocket. His is tattooed on his chest, a lifetime appointment, albeit one with perhaps a shorter life expectancy than his counterparts on the other side of the blue line. In David Gordon’s The Wild Life, Joe goes in search of some missing sex workers. Their profession may be known for its high turnover, but this time it’s more troubling: The women have disappeared without a trace, leaving behind their passports and savings. High on the suspect list are Jim Hackney, a well-connected property developer with a history of employing prostitutes, and his namesake son, a daddy’s boy with a penchant for big-game hunting. Joe’s smart-aleck attitude quickly gets him crosswise with the pair, and the situation deteriorates rapidly. Complicating matters is Joe’s budding romance with FBI agent Donna Zamora, a situation that must be kept secret from both their employers—which is not easy when they are investigating the same case from opposing perspectives. I must admit to being partial to mysteries in which one of the protagonists works within the framework of the law and the other suffers no such constraints. I usually find myself more drawn to the outlaw of the pair, especially if they’re as gritty and funny as Joe Brody.
At the beginning of Overboard, Sara Paretsky’s 22nd V.I. Warshawski novel, the Chicago PI has just lost control of her two large dogs while walking them alongside Lake Michigan. Scuttling down some treacherous rocks in pursuit of the disobedient doggies, V.I. is horrified to find a battered teenage girl barely clinging to life. At the hospital, the victim’s vital signs are stabilized, but she has no identification and seems unable or unwilling to converse in any language. It is clear that she is terrified of something or someone, and she escapes from the hospital at her first opportunity. As V.I. looks into the case of the missing girl—pro bono, which she can ill afford—disturbing connections come to light in relation to some questionable legal shenanigans involving a synagogue and a prime piece of Chicago waterfront property. And then the murders begin. The COVID-19 pandemic plays a key role in the story’s backdrop, something we will certainly see more and more often in literature as the pandemic wears on. V.I., who narrates in the first person, has some strong left-leaning feelings on how the crisis has been handled in America, but they never detract from Paretsky’s compelling, fast-paced and original mystery.
The Dark Flood
South African writer Deon Meyer returns with The Dark Flood, the seventh installment of his series featuring Cape Town police detective Benny Griessel. Griessel, a confirmed disobeyer of orders from above, is once again in the soup. The commissioner wants to see Griessel sacked, but cooler heads prevail, and he is instead demoted and reassigned to a suburban outpost where nothing much happens. Well, nothing much until Griessel arrives, and then—as has been known to happen before—all hell breaks loose. First, a college honor student goes missing, and then there’s the disappearance of a businessman who allegedly engineered an economy-toppling scheme, but the forensic accountants have yet to sufficiently untangle the multilayered mess. In a parallel storyline, we follow the financial woes of Sandra Steenberg, a young real estate agent who has fallen behind on her mortgage, her car payments and the tuition for her young daughter’s school. Sandra needs some quick cash, and she is willing to bend a few rules to facilitate that end, even if it means covering up an unexpected death. As with the previous entries in the series, The Dark Flood is a character-driven novel, and Griessel’s history of alcoholism is one of the main characters (albeit one without a speaking role). Larceny abounds, and in at least a couple of the cases, readers will almost hope that the perps get away with it. Even the book’s villains are laden with backstory, and it is borderline impossible to avoid feeling some level of sympathy for one and all. Fans of Jo Nesbø’s similarly character-driven Harry Hole mysteries will find lots to like here.
Gustaf Skördeman’s debut novel, Geiger, is a first-class story of the modern-day repercussions of Cold War espionage—not the first thing you’d expect from a thriller set in Sweden, which was a decidedly neutral country for most of that conflict. The story centers on the murder of a retired TV personality, Uncle Stellan, who was at one time the Johnny Carson of Sweden, beloved by adults and children alike. The book is not a whodunit in the true sense of the word, as we know who the killer is from the moment the bullet exits the gun. What we don’t know is the reason Agneta, Stellan’s wife of 50-odd years, chose to kill him after answering the phone and hearing a one-word message: “Geiger.” Detective Inspector Anna Torhall has been assigned to the case, and she brings Officer Sara Nowak on board since Sara has known Uncle Stellan’s family since she was a child. The two friends attended police academy together, and they value each other’s insights, at least to a point. Sara and Anna initially presume Agneta was either abducted by the killers or perhaps dead herself, and for quite some time, nobody even floats the notion that she might be the murderer. But as their investigation wears on, some disturbing connections to Communist East Germany come to light—connections that may lay the groundwork for an act of terrorism that would make 9/11 pale by comparison. Geiger is a truly excellent first novel: deeply researched, painstakingly crafted and thrilling on every page.