A New York state of crime and London calling

Published July 1, 2021, 2:17 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: From the Hamptons to upstate New York, it’s the criminal life in that state for two of our novels. Then two from London or the nearby outskirts.

Set in the streets of New York

‘The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer’ by Joël Dicker

If you’re looking for sleepless nights, for a page turner that will have you perpetually going for one more chapter, then you can’t go wrong with this mystery thriller. It sets you up perfectly with a multiple murder that takes your breath away. What seems to have happened in 1994 is that on the day that the seaside town of Orphea in the Hamptons was launching its Theater Festival, the town mayor, his wife, his young son, and a “wrong time wrong place” lady jogger/bystander were all coldly shot down. Then young police officers Joel Rosenberg and Derek Scott were assigned the case. A suspect who was about to be arrested ended up killing himself.

Twenty years later and investigative reporter Stephanie Mailer sidles up to Joel a week before his retirement from the force and says they got the wrong guy, and they missed what was right in front of them. A few days later, Stephanie is missing, and her apartment is ransacked. Going against the wishes of Derek and his commanding officer, Joel begins to investigate, suspecting there may be some truth in Stephanie’s words. Intricately plotted, flitting between the two time junctures of 1994 and 2014, the novel is a joy to read as it removes the veil of small town politics and literary ambitions, while trafficking in deceit, lies, and appearances. While there is an element of some things falling into place too coincidentally, Dicker pulls it off in breathtaking fashion.

‘The Forger’s Daughter’ by Bradford Morrow

The world of literary forgeries, of how the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and of how there will always be a price to be paid, are the themes of this gripping novel from Bradford Morrow. It stands as a sequel to his masterful “The Forgers,” picking up years later and taking stabs at retribution, on how a leopard can’t change his spots, and how family is the one bond that can often stand the most rigorous of tests. And at the center of the story is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane.” It’s very early Poe, a published book of his poems, that even he derided later in his lifetime. But of course, the value of such a book is astronomical, given how only 13 copies have survived to this day.

The novel is structured as alternating chapters in terms of narrator. We have Meghan, a book trader and wife to Will. Then we have the chapters where Will takes over a master book forger, who’s one hand is maimed, and who has been trying to live a straight and narrow life with Meg, their daughter Nicole, and Maisie, the daughter of a very close friend who passed away. Intruding into their upstate bucolic New York home is one vicious reminder of Will’s past. This would be Slader, a forger himself and the one responsible for Will’s hand. Coercing Will to forge the “Tamerlane,” Slader exposes much about the precarious manner in which Will has “evolved” his life. The appearance of Nicole, herself a talent to be reckoned with, thickens the plot.

Tumbling along the Thames

‘Hot Stew’ by Fiona Mozley

Author of the highly praised “Elmet,” Fiona Mozley is back with this novel that could very well answer the question of what a Charles Dickens living in London today would write about. It is set in the seedy, tourist trap district of Soho—it is not the Soho of theaters and cinemas, or even where the tourists congregate, but the side streets where London’s demi-monde live, work, and play. It’s the subculture populated by prostitutes, waiters, drunks, and vagrants, along with the rich property owners, crime bosses, and corrupt law enforcement officers. It’s into this world that Mozley wants to create her human comedy and tragedy. And, to her credit, she turns these people into characters that we invest in. With the caveat that with such a diverse cast of characters, some will obviously work better than the others.

On one side, there’s Agatha, a young Russian woman who basically inherited all the properties of her vice lord father after he passed away. She’s out to redevelop the area, get rid of the low-paying existing tenants, and this is what creates the initial conflict. Arrayed against Agatha are a band of independent prostitutes who basically work without pimps, thanks to the centrally located apartments they occupy. Leading the band are Precious and her “maid,” a retired prostitute who stays in the business by being a second to the working girl in the partnership. Into the orbit of the lives of Agatha and Precious, we encounter the likes of Agatha’s mother, their lawyer, the lawyer’s son, a struggling actor, a bunch of street people, and so on.

‘The Marlow Murder Club’ by Robert Thorogood

Some 30 miles west of London, in the Buckinghamshire countryside, you’ll find the sleepy, picturesque town of Marlow. If you recall the film “Hot Fuzz,” it’s that sort of bucolic hamlet where the most exciting event of the week would be the church bingo. It’s in this kind of setting that Robert Thorogood unveils his latest mystery thriller. The central character is enough to demonstrate just how much fun this will be: Judith is 77 years old and lives alone in a mansion. A free-spirited kind of woman, she’s not averse to swimming nude on the River Thames as it flows past her house. The mystery jumpstarts as she’s swimming one evening and hears in succession a shout then a gunshot from her neighbor’s house across the river.

Determined to get to the bottom of the incident, and feeling that the local police aren’t doing enough, Judith is soon joined by Suzie, a middle-aged dog-walker, and Becks, the Vicar’s prim and proper wife. Together, this most unlikely triumvirate will attempt to solve the triple murder that has descended upon Marlow, and the seeming appearance of a serial murderer within their midsts. Against her better judgment, the Senior Investigating Officer, Tanika, finds that the three are her best bet for coming close to solving the crimes. This book has Agatha Christie elements, mixed with a most unusual crime-solving trio, and a plot that has enough twists, turns, and red herrings to keep us turning the pages. On the surface, it’s light and frothy crime fiction, but don’t be fooled by appearances as it satisfies in ways we don’t expect.

 
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