Booked and Printed
Robert C. Hahn
Knopf is publishing a timely treat for fans of the late P. D. James. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (Knopf, $24) contains four of the author’s uncollected stories. Adding to the pleasure is the brief but fulsome introduction by Val McDermid and an even better preface from the author in which she notes the reduced market for short stories, gives a cogent description of the challenges of the short story form, and concludes: “The good short story is accordingly difficult to write well, but in this busy age it can provide one of the most satisfactory reading experiences.”
The stories were originally published in newspapers or magazines and showcase James’s mastery of both language and plot with the title story featuring a near perfect crime narrated by a crime novelist looking back on a fifty-year-old murder. Series lead Adam Dalgliesh features in two stories. In the first, “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Chief Superintendent Dalgliesh re-examines a 1901 murder case to determine if a not-guilty verdict was just or unjust in the trial of a young bride accused of killing her elderly husband. The other story, “The Twelve Clues of Christmas,” gives young Sergeant Dalgliesh an opportunity to display his powers of observation and deduction as a series of minor clues point to an elaborate murder plot.
James Lee Burke continues to add to his remarkable series of novels about the Holland family which began with the 1971 publication of Lay Down My Sword and Shield, the first of four which featured Hackberry Holland. Four more volumes published from 1997 to 2004 featured Billy Bob Holland, while 2014’s Wayfaring Stranger introduced Weldon Holland. Together they span American history from the latter days of the Wild West through three major wars and into the present day.
The hero of Burke’s latest novel, The Jealous Kind (Simon & Schuster, $27.99) is seventeen-year-old Aaron Holland Broussard. Growing up in rough and tumble Houston in 1952, he navigates a sea of adolescent and adult problems that turn ugly when he injects himself into an argument between Valerie Epstein and Grady Harrelson, making an enemy of Harrelson and finding the great love of his life in Valerie.
Aaron compounds his troubles by going to see Valerie at her home and exchanging words with a “greaseball” named Loren Nichols, which earns him another enemy. The unwanted and unhelpful intercession of his shop teacher Mr. Krauser only makes things worse.
The 1950s Burke describes is nothing like that of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s family. Instead, it is a treacherous territory of testosterone-filled teens, inept or corrupt cops, mob-connected bad guys, and Mexican drug dealers. When Nichols’s car is vandalized, Aaron is questioned by Detective Merton Jenks, who then brings out the zinger that links the vandalism and the death of prostitute Wanda Estevan. There’s a connection between Aaron’s closest friend, Saber Bledsoe, who is reckless and fearless and given to acting first and worrying about consequences later, and Wanda Estevan.
Aaron finds himself caught in events that spiral out of control taking him into conflict not just with other teens but also with Harrelson’s father Clint, a punk named Vick Atlas, and a pair of Mexican dealers who use Bledsoe to move drugs.
In the acknowledgements following the novel’s end, Burke thanks a number of people for their “invaluable help in making this novel one of the best I have written.” That is a bold statement considering all of Burke’s previous accomplishments and memorable characters. The Jealous Kind, though, is remarkable for its complex portrayal of its teen protagonist and for its depiction of an era of American history that is too often glossed over as if all the ferment bubbling beneath the surface didn’t exist.
Lee Child’s twenty-first thriller featuring redoubtable Jack Reacher, Night School (Delacorte, $28.99), takes readers back to his early days in 1996 when as Major Jack Reacher, army MP, he is given a clandestine assignment that teams him with Casey Waterman of the FBI, and John White of the CIA. Alfred Ratcliffe, National Security Adviser to the president, and his assistant Dr. Marian Sinclair tell the three men of conversations overheard in a Jihadist cell in Hamburg, Germany, regarding an American seeking a hundred million dollars for an unspecified something he wanted to sell to the Arabs.
Finding the unnamed American is a priority with White, Waterman, and Reacher. The three are promised whatever they need but told only to deal with Sinclair, Ratcliffe, or the president. And they are told not to burn the Iranian informer in the Hamburg terrorist cell.
Reacher’s first decision is to select Sergeant Frances Neagley, his former top sergeant, as his aide. His second decision is to go to Hamburg, where it appears the deal will be done.
Germany is also where approximately two hundred thousand Americans—military and civilian—are in the country, and Child is expert at the detail he brings to the story as attempts are made to identify the American and figure out what he has to sell that could be worth so much money. Especially difficult since the means of communication between the terrorist bosses in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and their men in Germany is cumbersome, circuitous, and virtually impossible to intercept. From that American intelligence must winnow the number of Americans in Germany down to produce a more manageable number of suspects. The processes are difficult and time consuming.
Child proves again that he is also a master at ingenious twists, as a third party with enormous resources gets wind of the chase and enters the race to find the American. It all plays out with the kind of tension and excitement that has earned the Reacher series millions of fans.
Brendan DuBois seems to divide his creative output almost equally between the short story form and novels. He recently appeared in the pages of the June issue of AHMM with his story “A Battlefield Reunion.” Storm Cell (Pegasus, $25.95) is his tenth thriller featuring Lewis Cole, a former research analyst for the Department of Defense, turned magazine writer. When his friend Felix Tinios is charged in New Hampshire for the murder of Fletcher Moore, a prominent businessman, politician, and philanthropist, Cole is struck by many oddities about the case. For one thing, the crime was sloppy—the murder weapon was found at the scene, complete with Felix’s fingerprints. Another is Felix’s choice of defense attorney, an inexperienced lawyer named Hollis Spinelli, instead of the dependable Raymond Drake. Also odd is Felix’s refusal to add Cole to the list of permitted visitors. So when FBI agent Alan Krueger tells Cole that Felix’s life is in danger, Cole agrees to help Felix by finding Drake and poking holes in the seemingly solid case.
Cole can’t seem to get answers from anyone: Drake is incommunicado, Spinelli does everything he can to avoid him, and Felix won’t see him or talk to him. So Cole pokes and prods and talks to the victim’s family and to his friend Detective Sergeant Diane Woods and the reporter Paula Quinn. Cole uncovers closely guarded secrets and makes clever use of some unwitting allies, but he still has to struggle against some surprising twists, as DuBois spins an elaborate web of deceptions to test his amateur sleuth in this entertaining tale.