By Steve Steinbock
The English language is filled with cliches about the past: The past is prologue; you can’t run from it; it catches up with you; it’s twenty-twenty; those who cannot remember it are condemned to repeat it. Nearly all of the books in this month’s Jury Box concern how the past is remembered, and how it affects the present.
***** Leonardo Padura, Heretics, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $27.00. Nine-year-old Daniel Kaminsky, a refugee from Germany, looks across Havana harbor, waiting to be reunited with his parents and sister who are aboard the German ocean liner the St. Louis. It’s 1939, and the ship, on its fated “Voyage of the Damned,” is eventually turned away and forced, with its cargo of Jewish refugees, to return to Germany. Nearly seventy years later, Kaminsky’s son returns to Cuba and hires detective Mario Conde to find out how the painting that had been his family’s legacy found its way into a British auction house. I seldom give five-star reviews in my column. But it’s also seldom that I discover a book as thought-provoking, well-told, and vast in scope as this. Expertly translated from the original Spanish by Anna Kushner, it is the story of a Havana ex-cop, a Rembrandt painting, and a missing teenage girl, overlaid with the stories of a Jewish artist working under Rembrandt’s tutelage in 1643 Amsterdam and a refugee from the Nazi Holocaust living in Havana.
**** James W. Ziskin, Heart of Stone, Seventh Street Books. $15.95. Set amid the summer camps and country roads of the Adirondacks, Heart of Stone is the fourth of Ziskin’s books featuring reporter Ellie Stone. Like Padura’s Heretics, it has a historical setting, but in this case, the setting is upstate New York in the summer in 1961 when Cold War tensions are high. Ellie is visiting family and periodically making social visits to a commune of socialist intellectuals. When the bodies of a stranger and a teenage boy from a nearby music camp are found at the bottom of a cliff, without any connection, Ellie’s curiosity won’t stop until she learns how and why the men fell.
**** Ian Rankin, Rather Be the Devil, Little, Brown, $27.00. It’s hard to believe that Ian Rankin’s series about detective John Rebus is thirty years old! For the past ten years, Rebus has been more or less retired.
But the old Edinburgh cop isn’t over the hill yet. While his former colleagues from the force are investigating the beating of a gangster, Rebus looks into a forty-year-old cold case involving a high-profile strangling. Rebus meets up again with his old nemesis “Big Ger” Cafferty, and it’s hard to tell until the end whether the two men will help or destroy each other. Rankin has said that he began the Rebus books as a sort of homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, and with the characters of Rebus and Cafferty, he makes a nod to Jekyll and Hyde.
**** Rob Leininger, Gumshoe for Two, Oceanview Publishing, $26.95. Mort Angel is still trying to rack up enough service hours to get his Nevada private investigators license when a beautiful hooker in a Reno casino hires him to locate her missing sister. The hooker turns out to be an engineering student, and the investigation takes many sharp turns. This novel contains quite a few of the standard riffs of the P.I. genre, but the result is a snappy, sexy, sometimes sad, but ultimately very satisfying page-turner.
**** Andrew Ordover, The Cat Came Back, Crafting-a-Life, $14.95. Another funny, irreverent P.I. novel came across my desk recently. Jordan Greenblatt is a former New Yorker and a failed medical student living in Atlanta, playing bass in a jazz band by night, and doing investigative work by day. After a college theatre event, Jordan is approached by a student, a real straight-arrow, concerned about the rise in drug use on campus.
Jordan dismisses the concerns, but when he later learns that the kid has died of an overdose, he’s immediately suspicious. He goes undercover as an undergraduate to get a backstage look at drugs, passion, and various abuses of power.
*** Philip Cioffari, The Bronx Kill, Livingston Press, $16.95. Five teenagers challenge each other to cross New York’s East River in the summer of 1998. Five years later, the three survivors are trying to carry on with their lives, but remain haunted by the events of that night. As one of the young men prepares for marriage, things take an ugly turn. A crooked cop, bent on blind revenge for his brother’s drowning, begins a campaign of terror against the three young men. There are a couple of interesting revelations in this tale of loyalty, lost innocence, and redemption.
*** James Runcie, Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love, Bloomsbury, $27.00 HC, $17.00 TPB. Runcie’s stories about Father Sidney Chambers are the basis for the ITV Grantchester series, which has been renewed for a third season. Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love is the sixth and, according to Runcie, the final book in the series. The series traces the career and incidental sleuthing of Chambers between 1953 and 1977. The first of the six novelettes in The Persistence of Love opens in 1971 and involves old hippies dabbling in recreational pharmacology and taking a deadly turn. The final story in this volume, set in 1977, is sad, quietly moving, and ultimately ends on a perfect upbeat note.
*** Stacey Bishop, Death in the Dark, Locked Room International, $24.99. At the home of a wealthy concert manager, the lights suddenly go black and a shot rings out. When the power is switched back on, the concert manager is dead, shot through the forehead. Brilliant criminologist Stephan Bayard is called in to help the police, and before he gets to the bottom of it, three more impossible crimes are committed. The background to this madcap Jazz-Age thriller is as interesting as the book itself. When Death in the Dark was published in Britain in 1930, it received accolades from T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound, and then promptly disappeared, never reprinted until now. The author, George Antheil (writing under the name Stacey Bishop), was an avant-garde composer in the 1920s and 30s who wrote Death in the Dark partly out of revenge for a disastrous Carnegie Hall concert. This edition includes an introduction by Martin Edwards and an afterword by music scholar Mauro Piccinini.
**** Paul Halter, The Vampire Tree, Locked Room International, $19.99. As a reviewer of current mysteries, one of my frustrations is finding the time to read the old classics of the genre. John Pugmire’s translation of Paul Halter’s 1996 novel (original title, L’Arbre aux doigts tordus) satisfied my thirst. With its atmospheric setting, dark legends layered over contemporary crimes, and clever deduction, it feels like the type of book John Dickson Carr might have cowritten with Daphne du Maurier. A young bride in the Surrey countryside begins having nightmares, only to discover that the images from her dreams mirror a murder of a young man, generations earlier, whose strangled body was found at the base of a tree, with only the victim’s footprints in the surrounding snow. Centuries before that, legend tells of a witch, hanged for slitting the throats of children, whose body was buried beneath that very tree. Meanwhile, Dr. Alan Twist is trying to solve a series of child-murders startlingly similar to those of local legend.
**** John le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, Viking, $28.00. John le Carré (the penname of David Cornwell) is the undisputed living master of English spy fiction. In The Pigeon Tunnel, he tells his own stories of his work as a British Intelligence agent during the Cold War, his meetings with communists, fascists, terrorists, spies, and double agents, and explains the origins of many characters from his books based on his encounters. He discusses his meetings with Yasser Arafat, Andrei Sakharov, Rupert Murdoch, and screenplay negotiations with Francis Ford Coppola, Richard Burton, and Alec Guinness. His stories skip back-and-forth through his life, including a poignant tale, toward the end of the book, about his unhappy relationship with his outlaw father.