Fiction Review: “Home by Nightfall: A Charles Lenox Mystery” by Charles Finch

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Home by NightfallAuthor Charles Finch’s latest mystery, “Home by Nightfall,” features Finch’s British, upper-class detective Charles Lenox pursuing clues to two crimes, one in London and one in the country town of Markethouse where he and his brother, Sir Edmund Lenox, grew up.

The first puzzle is where did a brilliant German pianist named Muller disappear to after a concert he gave? He seems to have vanished into thin air, since no one saw him leave the concert hall, and there have been no sightings of him in London. In addition to this disappearance, a countryside mystery forms in the town of Markethouse when minor transgressions like small thefts and the inexplicable drawing of a young girl on a newcomer’s steps culminate in a knife attack on Markethouse’s mayor. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Brush Back” by Sara Paretsky

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If you like your crime fiction set in Chicago with a female detective who breaks jaws and breaks conventions, read “Brush Back, ” the seventeenth novel in Sara Paretsky’s Warshawski series. Since the first novel in the series, the portrayal of the characters, cityscape and sociopolitical setting has grown richer as Paretsky hones her powers; she has had more than thirty years to develop the characters of Vic Warshawski and her network of friends, to portray Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods as well as the class and political influences that make Chicago a great city in which the detective can exercise her sense of justice. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Secret Place” by Tana French

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Tana French is finally back with the fifth book of the Dublin Murder Squad mysteries with “The Secret Place.” Her ingenious conceit continues, in which a minor character from a previous book becomes the lead character in the next—so in “The Secret Place, ” the point of view is from Stephen Moran, a rookie cop from “Faithful Place.” Stephen is approached by Holly—the daughter of another detective on the squad. Part of the fun of French’s books is that an inscrutable minor character is opened up in a future book, completely changing the reader’s perspective.

Holly’s dad, Frank, went from hard-nosed prick in “The Likeness” to tough-guy-with-heart-of-gold in “Faithful Place.” Holly tells Stephen that she found a note in the “secret place”—a board at her school where girls are invited to pin up secrets, a place to release emotions but also a place carefully guarded by the faculty. Holly attends St. Kilda’s, a posh private girls’ school where a boy from the nearby private boy’s school was found killed one year ago. Holly’s note reads “I know who killed him.” Read the rest of this entry »

Crime Studies: The Story Behind Lori Rader-Day’s Campus-Set Debut, “The Black Hour”

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By Brandie Rae Madrid

First-time novelist and Chicago transplant Lori Rader-Day’s “The Black Hour” is set in a prestigious university in a fictional Chicago suburb. After an inexplicable attack by a student shooter, Professor Amelia Emmet returns to work, albeit with a cane, a new anxiety about her students, and a slew of faculty who think she must have brought the crime on herself somehow. Told from two perspectives—that of Emmet and her new teaching assistant Nathaniel—the novel explores the aftermath of a violent crime that is becoming all too common on campuses today.

You’re originally from Indiana? What brought you to Chicago?
I am. The central Indiana area just northwest of Indianapolis near a town call Lebanon. Lots of people pass by it and may not stop.

We came to Chicago in 2001. I had gotten a job, and I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to come up here with me, and he responded by asking to marry him. So my fiancé and I came to Chicago together, and we got married about two years later. So, a good job, but also just trying to find adventure.

Chicago and its history end up being a big part of this novel. Can you speak a little bit about that and how that came about?
I can’t say that I’m an expert in Chicago crime history, but I think it’s really interesting to live in a town with so much rich history of all kinds. And then Chicago has such interest in its own history that I just love, but it also has an interest in its own crime history. I was thinking about what would draw Nathaniel in the book to Chicago once he’s there—because he’s interested in what happened to Dr. Emmet. But I thought he would have this sort of dark interest in crime, and of course Chicago is a good place to study crime if you’re going to do it. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway” by Sara Gran

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RECOMMENDED ClaireDewittBohemianHighway_web

Sara Gran has created an amazing character in Claire DeWitt, the detective in her brilliant series. Miserable, drug-abusing, pill-popping, possibly insane—she’s nevertheless one of the greatest private eyes in the world. As teenagers, Claire and two friends found a life-changing book by French detective Jacques Silette, “Détection,” and started practicing his peculiar methods. In Silette’s world, clues come in unexpected places—dreams, tattoos, fingerprints—not those found on a glass or a gun, but the actual whorls and arches of the finger’s print. DeWitt is first introduced in Gran’s 2011 “Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead” in which she solves the Case of the Green Parrot. In “Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway,” she’s solving the Case of the Kali Yuga. The Kali Yuga is actually a fairly complex philosophical idea (don’t worry, she explains everything quite clearly). In this particular case, DeWitt’s ex-boyfriend, still very dear to her, has been killed, and she intuitively knows it’s not the botched breaking and entering suspected by the police. Gran’s series possesses a Philip Marlowe quality with both location and character—her first book took place in New Orleans, while the second is set in San Francisco. DeWitt delves into the seedier aspects of these marvelous cities while simultaneously trying to numb herself to the associated emotional trauma of old relationships. It’s not unlike her to interview someone and then slip into their bathroom and steal their pain medication, doping up on expired Vicodin and Valium. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan

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“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is about a bookstore clerk in San Francisco. The store, owned by Mr. Penumbra (and, you guessed it, open twenty-four hours a day) is a bookstore lover’s dream: narrow, dark, books stacked tight and high, requiring a ladder for general accessibility.  Clay gets a job on the night shift after losing his job as a web designer for a West Coast bagel company (anyone who’s had the misfortune of eating a bagel in San Francisco will understand how tenuous such a job would be). The job comes with a list of rules that sound threatening but are, of course, specially designed to encourage breaking: “You may not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes. Retrieve them for members. That is all.”  Clay quickly discovers that some mysterious business is transacted at the bookstore and begins a sort of madcap adventure to solve the mystery and help Mr. Penumbra.  Along the way he uses the talents of his friends and makes new acquaintances in the technology world. His girlfriend, who works at Google, becomes integral to helping unravel the mystery.

The book is written by San Franciscan Robin Sloan, a self described “Media Inventor,” who clearly has both an enthusiastic zeal for the offerings of the digital age, and a reverential respect for much older technologies: books, typeset, codes—what his characters call “Old Knowledge.” Parts of “Penumbra” are didactic—Sloan’s character reaches out to the techy reader and pulls the neophyte in, describing programming languages, DRM, mechanical turks and even a DIY book scanner in a way anyone could understand. It’s fun how he mixes actual Google initiatives, like the self-driving car, with fantastical ones, like time-machines and organ regeneration (one presumes). Sloan, for one, welcomes our Google overlords. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: “Broken Harbor” by Tana French

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Tana French’s latest mystery, “Broken Harbor,” opens on the murder of a suburban family, the Spains. A husband and wife are viciously stabbed and their two children are suffocated in their sleep. Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy is assigned as the lead detective in this Irish mystery—he’s a hard-nosed, rule-book cop who believes, against all odds, in justice. Ever confident, Scorcher likes dropping pearls of wisdom like, “Here’s the part you never saw in interviews or documentaries, because we keep it to ourselves. Most victims went looking for exactly what they got.” His partner Richie is a rookie: young and instinctual, a bit like Holder in “The Killing.” Poor Richie has to bear the constant advice of Scorcher, who lectures him on everything from how to dress to how to interview subjects. Despite their inequalities of age, rank and social class, Scorcher and Richie begin to develop a true partnership, each carefully negotiating the exchange of trust the relationship requires. Read the rest of this entry »