Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen*****

alternateside“If nobody can tell the difference between real and fake, who cares if fake is what you’re showing?”

Score another one for Anna Quindlen. Often prodigious writers lapse into formulas, becoming predictable, but not Quindlen, who brings a snappy, original tale to the reader every time. She makes us think, and she makes us like it. Big thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for letting me read it free and early. This book is for sale now.

The story is built around a controversy that develops around that most prized acquisition among financially successful New Yorkers: a parking place. Local ordinances have a Byzantine set of rules involving parking on alternate sides of the street, and the neighborhood’s homeowners are sick to death of going out to move the car. A privately owned parking lot leases spaces, but there aren’t enough to go around, and a seniority system makes some residents intense; think of the rent-controlled apartments that get passed down like family heirlooms, and then you’ll have the general idea.

Ultimately, however, the parking place is metaphor, and perhaps allegory, for other aspects of life that go much deeper, and the way Quindlen unspools it is not only deft, but also funny as hell in places.

New Yorkers will appreciate this novel, but others will too. This reviewer is one of those visitors that Quindlen’s characters regard with scorn, the people that pop into town, gawk, buy things, and then leave again. But I’m telling you that despite the title, this is not just—or even mainly—a book for New Yorkers.

The audience that will love this book hardest is bound to be people like the main characters: white middle-class readers old enough to have grown children. But the take-down of petite bourgeois assumptions and attitudes is sly, incisive, and clever as hell.

At one point I began highlighting, for example, the many ways in which the phrases “you people” and “these people” are wielded.

Here is a final word of caution: if you are contemplating divorce, this may tip you over the brink. On the other hand, maybe that’s just what you need.

Highly recommended to those that love strong fiction and occasionally are visited by that “crazy liberal guilt thing.”

Two Miles of Darkness, by Earl Emerson****

twomilesofdarkness Fans of Emerson’s Thomas Black mysteries will be as pleased as I was to see this, the 14th in the series. Black took a very long nap and seemed to have all but disappeared for awhile, but then he was back with Monica’s Sister, followed by this title. There was no DRC for this one, so I picked it up free using my Amazon Prime digital credits. It was a good way to spend them. The book was released in 2015, so of course you can get it also.

We start out with one of my three most tired devices for a mystery novelist: Black and his sidekick, Snake are hogtied in the trunk of a car. I rolled my eyes in the way that made my second grade teacher caution me might make them stick that way forever—an outstanding science lesson that remained with me long after the legitimate curriculum had drifted away—but because I like this series so much, I kept reading anyway. And it was worth it.

Eventually of course Black stops discussing being stuck inside the trunk, and he remembers back, back, back to how all this came about. And that’s the story that is great fun and also well written.

Black grew up in the working class here in Seattle, but his father did errands and handyman work for a wealthy widow that went by the nickname Doda. Dad is long gone, but Doda is still there, and she hires Black to find Pickles, a dog she gave to Mick and Alex Kraft. The Krafts, by peculiar coincidence, had also tried to hire Black recently in order to find out who was harassing them; Mick had experienced a string of terrible luck that he believed was too sudden to be a coincidence. Black told him that sometimes bad luck really is just bad luck, but the next thing you know, they’re both dead. Police are calling it a murder and suicide; Doda just wants the dog back. She’ll pay a pretty penny if Black can find Pickles and bring him safely home.

In this matter, Black’s friend Snake, usually the irresponsible party where the two friends are involved, is the sensible one that points out the truth, a very good reason to turn the dog job down:

“You hate rich people. Think about these guys. The rest of the world works for a living, but these guys have nothing to do all day but drink Mai Tais and sit around the pool waiting for their dividend checks to arrive in the mail. It burns you up. I know it does.”

 

Snake is right. Black hates the rich, and I have a sneaking hunch that Emerson does too.  So in this tale, we have a couple of spoiled men—no longer young enough to be called brats—known as Chad and Binky. One is Doda’s son, and the other is the son’s best buddy. Their massive resources coupled with a life of leisure and surfeit of free time give them the capacity to play elaborate pranks, and both show a solipsistic disregard for the effect their games have upon the lives of others. They fit Snake’s description to a tee.

Nevertheless, Black takes the doggy job, and so we have two mysteries, the official dog-finding mystery, and the unofficial mystery Black’s conscience requires him to tackle regarding the Krafts.

One small fact-checking blooper hit my I-don’t-think-so-button, and that was the widely-believed myth that all juvenile records are sealed once the doer of the crime turns 18. In reality, after a number of years, a hefty filing fee, and a ton of complicated paperwork, the person in question can have the particulars of their crime locked away, but if it was a relatively small offense, that may make matters worse, because anyone running the background check will see that the person did something in their youth that they want concealed. Most juvenile offenders never want to see a courtroom again when they are older, and most don’t have the extra money to throw at a court procedure anyway, so the misdeed stays on the record until they grow old and die. It never vanishes from the record, as some folks, sadly some of them juveniles looking for trouble, believe. At least, that’s the truth in Washington State, and that’s where Emerson lives and where his story is set.

Now back to our story. Emerson is a champ when it comes to pacing, and he’s one of the best there is when it comes to bouncing a straight man off a colorful sidekick like Elmer “Snake” Sleazak. The story would be no fun at all without Snake, but with him, it’s immensely entertaining. The sly banter and the unexpected, off-the-chain behaviors will put a smile on your face; if you don’t find him funny, check your pulse to make sure you aren’t dead.  Add another side character, a neighbor kid named Charlie that was friends with Pickles the dog, and there’s charm all over the place. People often underestimate kids, who are often our best observers: “Charlie knew the neighborhood like a cheating husband knew every creaky stair on his front porch.”

This is a page-turner that will make your own troubles seem oh so small, and for those that find themselves with a long weekend at hand, this book will provide the excuse you may need to just chill for awhile. One way or the other, this is a well written story, deftly handle with just the right balance of mirth and suspense. My records tell me I have read over 700 mysteries since 2012, and that doesn’t even take into account most of what I read during the previous decades of adulthood, and so I am picky. I see a device that I’ve grown tired of, and a star falls of my rating. But as for you, if you lean leftward and love a good private eye story, this could well be a five star read.

Recommended to those that lean left and enjoy detective fiction and comic capers.

 

The Black Glove, by Geoffrey Miller*****

The Black GloveThe place is Hollywood, California; the time is 1980. Terry Traven is a private detective specializing in finding the runaway children of the wealthy. He is offered a job that appears to be more of the same; a local mogul’s son has disappeared, and Dad wants him found. But then the disappearance turns out to be a kidnapping, and the kidnapping turns out to be a murder, at which point all hell breaks loose. This story is fast-paced and though it’s set a generation or two ago, the issues with police brutality—otherwise known as “the black glove”—make it more socially relevant than your average piece of crime fiction. There are other components that will sit well with those with an eye for social justice, too. Thank you Brash Books Priority Reviewer’s Circle for the DRC, which I received in exchange for a fair and honest review. This book is available for sale right now.

The beginning of the book doesn’t appear to be auspicious. A guy walks into Traven’s office and presents him with a dossier that tells him all about himself, at least in the words of intelligence sources. The dossier is too lengthy–we see every word, pages and pages of italicized material– and is clearly a fast, easy way for the author to introduce us to the character. I was prepared to be let down.

Once we get past that sloppy introduction, however, the story is complex and fast paced enough to remind me of James Lee Burke’s detective series. Toss in some quirky names, like Senator Suspenders and a punk rock band called The Dead Cherries, and add a whole lot of action. And yet somehow we find ourselves discussing issues of race, gender, and gay rights without slowing the pace at all. I almost always take off at least a star for the use of the “n” word, but the way it is used here isn’t just some cheap stunt to show us that a bad guy is really rotten or ignorant; instead, the characters manage to embark on an abbreviated discussion of race and white privilege without ever becoming preachy or distracting from the main thread.  Some of it is very indirect, and it took me awhile to get a handle on it. In other places, it’s crystal clear, as when the visiting room at the jail is “gas chamber green…a cruelly subtle reminder to the inmate of his loss of freedom.”

The story’s subscript demonstrates how women and people of color are sometimes so overwhelmed by the racism and sexism that is inherent in US culture—and even more so when this novel was written than now—that we find ourselves internalizing that hatred. Likewise gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals; those from the Boomer generation will recall just how difficult this time period was for anyone that wasn’t straight.  And given that Miller wrote this during that time, I consider this story to be courageously written, a gutsy story by a writer unafraid to take a hard look at a controversial topic.

In fact, Brash Books hasn’t introduced a detective this brainy and complex, yet entertaining since they brought out Barbara Neely’s Blanche White series. What a tremendous find! I wish there was a whole series with this detective.

Meanwhile chances are excellent that you haven’t read this book yet, and if you lean left and enjoy a good detective novel, this is one you should scoop up right away.  It’s strong fiction with a progressive thread running through it. Don’t miss out.