Vivian Kelly, the heroine of Katharine Schellman’s vibrant serial debut, LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTINGALE (Minotaur, 312 pp., $27.99)† longs to escape. It’s Manhattan, 1924, not long after women gained the right to vote and lost the right to drink alcohol. The jazz era gives and takes, but Vivian, a seamstress with an adventurous streak, doesn’t know that yet.
She has too much fun dancing and drinking every night in the champagne-soaked Nightingale, “second-hand sequins sewn to the hem of her dress.” However, the fun at the speakeasy — which welcomes all races, genders, and genders, however secretive — is about to end: “The long, drawn-out wail of a trumpet can hide almost anything. Even the sound of murder.”
When Vivian encounters a dead man in the alley behind the club, where she’s been getting some fresh air, the Nightingale’s seductive owner, Honor Huxley, persuades her to investigate the crime. After all, “there would be no police. …and if someone came to collect the body, the chances of them looking carefully around for evidence of who had committed the crime were practically nil.”
What follows is a veritable journey through the demimonde, populated by the useless, dangerous rich and the desperate, hungry poor, all with motive and means to kill. Vivian is a great character, courageous and resourceful, determined to choreograph another life for herself.
Alan Drew’s most recent novel, the poignant and memorable “Shadow Man” (2017), was a character-driven police procedural from the mid-1980s set in Southern California. Although I thought highly of it and its protagonists, Detective Ben Wade and Coroner Natasha Betencourt, sequels never crossed my mind.
I was wrong, and I’m glad about that. THE RECRUIT (Random House, 416 pp., $28.99) brings Ben and Natasha back and deepens their personal relationship while their professional ties remain intertwined. Rancho Santo Elena, where they work, is a wealthy enclave of “brand new pseudo-Mediterranean homes” and “neat malls” that — to Ben, at least — resemble the kind of place Nazis would have built had they occupied California. Its cultivated perfection, its homogeneity.” Beneath the city’s painted surface, ugliness is brewing: a growing white nationalist movement that Ben believes is linked to a range of crimes, including murder and a deadly bombing.
Drew shows what it’s like to be a lost teenager seeking intercourse in the worst possible places, whether it’s a Vietnamese girl who loves someone she shouldn’t or a white boy who puts his trust in a toxic ideology. That’s just one of the many ways in which ‘The Recruit’, set in 1987, feels almost contemporary. At one point, Ben watches a TV news report about the crimes. “There was a shocked tone on the broadcast, as if the reporters and anchors couldn’t quite understand that these nice white people could do such terrible things.”
When Chris Offutt published his first noir novel ‘The Killing Hills’ last year† it seemed to surprise those accustomed to his more literary fiction. SHIFTY’S BOYS (Grove, 262 pp., $27) Gets Army homicide investigator Mick Hardin back and drops him on another case that, by law, he shouldn’t be working on. After all, Mick is recovering from an IED attack and steers clear of his sister Linda, a county sheriff facing re-election. Too bad a body turns up behind the Western Auto store. Especially unfortunate that it’s someone Mick knows and whose mother – the Shifty from the title – urges him to investigate what happened.
The writing is top notch, laced with menace and melancholy. What will stay with me is Hardin’s stubborn strength, which might falter in dangerous self-loathing, but never does.
Finally, credit to independent publisher Pushkin Vertigo for introducing gems of Japanese crime fiction to the American public. An ongoing project is translating the detective novels of Seishi Yokomizo (1902-81), who took a pinch of John Dickson Carr and a dash of Agatha Christie in creating Kosuke Kindaichi, the solver of impossible crimes in 77 parts, beginning with “The Honjin Murders.”
Kosuke’s second outing, DEATH ON GOKUMON ISLAND (Pushkin Vertigo, 317 pp., paper, $15.95), beautifully translated by Louise Heal Kawai, takes him to “an isolated island of granite, thick with red pine trees” in the Seto Inland Sea. As he was dying, an old friend had begged Kosuke, “Please go to Gokumon Island in my place…save my sisters…my three sisters will be killed.”
How can he refuse such a request? But it turns out that the sisters are known locally as “the quirkiest girls” on Gokumon, where Kosuke’s arrival coincides with a series of bizarre and gruesome murders. As the death toll mounts, the quirky, engaging detective collects the clues to solve this diabolical puzzle.
I hope this translation project continues – I would like to read more Kosuke Kindaichi books.
Sarah’s Weinman’s crime novels column appears twice a month.