C’est magnifique and crime does pay

Published August 13, 2021, 2:17 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: A multi-awarded French novel gets its English translation, and three distinct, diverse types of crime fiction make up the four novels today.

A bit science mixed with mad fiction?

‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ by Victoria Mas

Paris, 1885. The talk of the town come Lenten season is how high society descends upon the Salpêtrière Asylum for the annual Madwoman’s Ball—it’s where the beau Monde of Paris rubs shoulders with the inmates and patients of the asylum for one strange, surreal night. Dr. Charcot has also been in the spotlight with his displays of hypnosis on the patients but knows that in a male-dominated world, while the hysterical and mentally challenged are part of the asylum’s population, you’ll also find unwanted wives and stubborn independent daughters. On the slimmest of excuses, with no rights of their own to stand on, they can be committed to Salpêtriére and never heard from again at the snap of a man’s finger.

Genevieve is the head nurse/matron. She idolizes Charcot, seeing him as a savior for these women. But when 19-year old Eugenie says she sees spirits and is condemned by her father to the asylum, a unique relationship between Genevieve and Eugenie develops. Our steadfast head nurse begins to question the process and system that Dr. Charcot has established. At times a gothic romance/adventure, at times dwelling on the other-worldly and inexplicable, there’s much to enjoy on this multi-awarded French novel that now gets its English translation. This is Victoria Mas’ debut novel, and it took France by storm when it was published. It’s historical fiction of a high order, and you’ll quickly understand why it received such a favorable reception.

‘The 22 Murders of Madison May’ by Max Barry

Max Barry is the author of such novels as “Syrup,” “Jennifer Government and Lexicon.” So when he turns to scifi, with a premise that on the surface, may be a case of “we’ve seen this before,” be ready to still be surprised. Maddie, when we first meet her, is a real estate agent who aspires to be an actress. When showing a house to a prospective buyer named Clay, things get weird with the first chapter closing on her being murdered by Clay. This coming after he professes his love for her, saying they’ve met in parallel worlds. When we next meet a Maddie, she is an actress, with Clay stalking her. It would seem that in these inter-dimensional worlds, Clay has been murdering Maddie, and the last count is around 21.

Newspaper reporter Felicity doesn’t normally do the murder and crime beat. When circumstances have her at Maddie’s crime scene, however, she becomes enmeshed in the strange scenario and meets Hugo who is a jailed convict. But there’s more to him than meets the eye. So, as I mentioned, it is a premise and plot device we’ve seen often enough times. Thankfully, Barry manages to put his own spin on the narrative and keeps us invested in what happens to all four major characters. It’s a murder mystery at heart but with the scifi, time-transporting elements there to keep us guessing and suspending our disbelief. To be honest, the middle portion of the book could have used a faster pace, but I love how Barry sews all the threads together to end the story satisfactorily.

A case for second chances

‘Razorblade Tears’ by S.A. Cosby

In the world you and I are familiar with, Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee Jenkins would never meet, much less end up as friends. While both hail from Virginia and both have served time for various crimes—Ike is Black while Buddy is a redneck. By sheer coincidence, the sons of these hardened ex-cons are gay, and Isiah and Derek ended up marrying each other, even having a daughter by surrogate means. That imperfect world has come crashing down after Isiah and Derek have been murdered, shot at point blank range. The police soon put the case on the inactive files as there are no leads, and it’s easier to presume it’s a hate crime or a robbery gone wrong. Welcome to the world of S.A. Cosby, one of the highly regarded new authors in the crime fiction scene.

In trying to show their deceased boys the love they were never able to give, Ike and Buddy team up to try and solve the double murder. It’s all about justice and retribution, and a sense of redemption for these callously grieving fathers. What Cosby offers is a no holds barred exposition and social commentary on racial tensions that exist to this day, and a stinging, visceral, bloody narrative that takes no prisoners in detailing how a grizzled Black man and perennially drunk redneck would find ways to work together—and slowly understand each other’s worlds better, in the process. As you read this blistering crime novel, you could imagine it being optioned into a film with the likes of Denzel Washington and Billy Bob Thornton cast as the two protagonists. Yes, it has that cinematic and compelling storyline, leaping off the printed page and begging to be turned into a movie.

‘Suburban Dicks’ by Fabian Nicieza

This is Fabian Nicieza’s first novel, as he first staked a reputation in the comic book world being the co-creator of “Deadpool.” From that provenance, you’d expect this crime fiction foray to mix outrageous humor with a murder mystery. While you won’t be left disappointed on those two counts, what did surprise me was the investigative procedures that lie at the center of this novel, and how Nicieza manages to balance these by being detailed and extensive on one hand while still involved and briskly-paced on the other. The setting is New Jersey’s more well-heeled towns in the suburbs like Princeton and West Windsor, and there’s the constant “chatter” of privilege and suburban entitlement, mixed with simmering racial tensions, a backhanded distaste for ethnic diversity and local government politics.

Our two main protagonists are Andie Stern, a mom with four kids and a fifth on the way, who lost the chance to be a FBI profiler; and Kenny Lee, a Chinese-American and a disgraced local newspaper reporter. At the book’s start, Andie drives into a gas station with her children, where police are botching up a crime scene. With razor sharp precision, she counts off the way the crime scene is being contaminated while holding her toddler who’s peeing on the tarmac . It’s an auspicious start and we’re immediately invested in Andie. Kenny brought down the New Jersey governor in a Pulitzer-winning expose when he was still at university but it’s been downhill since then, with a case that stretched ethical limits. So this case of a murdered Indian immigrant gas attendant means different things for the two. For Andie, it’s going back to her calling. For Kenny, it’s about redemption. Recommend this highly!