Tuesday, 20 March 2018 14:41

(Mystery Scene continues its ongoing series in which authors talk about their plots, characters or process.)

Author Michael Niemann’s third novel is Illegal Holdings, which finds his series character, United Nations fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen, on assignment in Maputo, Mozambique. He’s sent there to find out if UN money is being properly used. But there is a little matter of a $5 million transfer that is missing.

Niemann grew up in a small town in Germany, ten kilometers from the Dutch border. Crossing that border often at a young age sparked in him a curiosity about the larger world. He studied political science at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn and international studies at the University of Denver. A fiction-writing course changed his career direction.

In this essay, Niemann shows how his character, Valentin Vermeulen, views the world and his background.

Here’s Valentin Vermeulen speaking:
How does a kid who grew up on a farm in western Belgium end up being a globetrotting investigator for the United Nations? Well, stuff happened. I should just leave it at that. The less said, the better. But you’re not going to be satisfied with that answer. I can see that.

So let’s get the formalities out of the way. My name is Valentin Vermeulen. I’m six feet tall, I got blond hair and my face is on the large side—rugged would be a kind description. I carry a Belgian/European Union passport. I was born a few years before The Clash started performing just across the North Sea. I used to fantasize about London. I’d be walking on the dike, staring across the steel gray water, and imagined being in a big city.

My village wasn’t on any map. Just a bunch of small farms, raising Guernsey cows and the crops necessary to feed them. Once a day, the coop truck stopped to pick up the 100 gallons of milk. Thinking back, I’m still amazed that my dad stuck it out as long as he did. By the late 1970s, the European Community was awash in milk and small producers like my father were totally unprofitable. The government wanted to consolidate farms and eventually, he threw in the towel.

We moved to Antwerp in 1983. Talk about culture shock. The biggest city in Belgium, a huge port, and me, the kid from the boondocks. The beginning was tough. But the hick from the sticks could stand on his own and learned the ropes. After school I was drafted and served in the Belgian military. The weird logic of bureaucracy assigned me to military intelligence. Good thing, too, instead of crawling through the dirt, I got to sit inside and analyze intelligence reports. The Cold War was still a thing and we were paranoid enough to see Soviet spies everywhere. As a draftee I didn’t do any spying in mufti, but I did get a course on clandestine investigations. It wasn’t really my thing. Gorbachov was in power and I could see that the Cold War was about to end. So I quit as soon as the conscription ended..

I enrolled at the law faculty of the University of Saint Ignatius of Antwerp. Justice had always been such an abstract idea and seemed to have little to do with the law. Observing my dad being pushed off the farm taught me that. It was all legal and it was unjust. How could that be? At the university, I learned that law isn’t some abstract concept, but something made and remade every day. Once I figured that out, I found my calling. I specialized in financial crimes.

That first year, I also found my first real love, Marieke, who was studying social work. We married right away and ten months later, our daughter Gaby was born. In hindsight, it was all too fast, we should’ve been more careful. But at the time we couldn’t wait to start our family.

I got good marks and the Crown Prosecutor’s office in Antwerp hired me right after I got my law degree. I was the financial guy in the organized crime unit. The cases kept on coming, each one as complex as the global connections that coalesced in our port city. I spent eighty to ninety hours a week at work. Once on a case, I couldn’t let it go. Worse than a dog with a bone. There were nights when I slept on the sofa in the coffee room because I stayed so long, it wasn’t worth going home.

My family noticed. I didn’t. When Marieke asked for a divorce. I had a dim understanding that all wasn’t well, but no clue how bad things were. And they were bad. We fought. A lot. Gaby couldn’t take it and ran away. The police didn’t do much. I searched for her and found her in some hell hole, strung out on heroin. I got her clean again, but she refused to speak to me for a long time. The short of it was, I had to get out of Antwerp, away from it all. And that’s how I ended up at the United Nations.

Not a story I am proud of, to be sure. But Gaby and I eventually made up. So there is little bit of a sweet ending.

Michael Niemann’s “Illegal Holdings”
Oline H. Cogdill
Saturday, 17 March 2018 21:59

Most of the time, I pay little attention to Parade magazine when it comes in my Sunday newspaper.

I read the questions on the second page, flip through the rest, and am done.

(Yes, I get a newspaper delivered to my home; actually I get three newspapers every day.)

But lately, Parade has run a feature that I am most interested in—“Books We Love,” which lists three examples recommended by authors. And the first three are mystery writers.

Laura Lippman’s latest is Sunburn, a standalone novel of which I was most enthusiastic.

In my review, I wrote that Lippman’s 22nd novel Sunburn “ignites as a classic hard-boiled mystery and contemporary domestic thriller. Lust, deceit, and the simple quest of happiness rule the plot as Sunburn works well as an homage to Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Anne Tyler. Lippman delves into a study of contrasts with a story that is as cynical as it is hopeful, a look at hearts of darkness coupled with a domestic thriller.

Lippman’s three picks for Parade magazine are:

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter

Sharp by Michelle Dean

Brad Meltzer’s latest novel is The Escape Artist, which marks Meltzer’s 20th anniversary as an author and launches a new series.

In my review I wrote, “Meltzer’s novels come with certain expectations—a plot filled with carefully researched but often obscure bits of American history and the government. Those facts may seem far-fetched but are true and elevate the characters’ adventures.”

Meltzer’s three picks for Parade magazine are:

Rivers of London: Volume 1 by Ben Aaronovitch

Vision (Marvel) by Tom King

The Oracle Year by Charles Soule

James Rollins’ latest Sigma Force thriller is The Demon Crown, which, as usual, has his mix of science, medicine, and technology. (I did not review this novel.)

Rollins’ three picks for Parade magazine are:

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

Artemis by Andy Weir

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Laura Lippman, Brad Meltzer, James Rollins
Oline H. Cogdill
Sunday, 18 February 2018 19:35

(Mystery Scene continues its ongoing series in which authors talk about their plots, characters, or process.)

J.J. Hensley, left, is a former police officer and former special agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He is the author of the novels Resolve, Measure Twice, and Chalk’s Outline. Hensley graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. His first novel, Resolve, was a Thriller Award finalist for best first novel. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime.

Here, Hensley lets his character, former Pittsburgh narcotics detective Trevor Galloway, talk about his latest adventures in Bolt Action Remedy.

In Bolt Action Remedy, Galloway has been hired to look into the year-old homicide of a prominent businessman who was gunned down on his estate in Central Pennsylvania.

Hensley swears Galloway has mellowed.

Galloway’s attitude
I used to have a temper. Not the kind of temper that caused me to lose control because of some minor slight, but more of the kind where I’d snap after absorbing a string of difficulties as if enduring Chinese water torture.

Insults would drip against my psyche, one at a time, with the relentless rhythm of life. I’d suffer in near silence. I’d suffer and reveal nothing—until it was too much. Then you’d see my temper. That’s what got me kicked out of the Virginia Military Institute my first year, when I was still a “Rat.” But over time I mellowed and the anger I seemed to always keep caged became drowsy and drifted off to sleep.

Now I’m working a cold case and my stoic demeanor and calm temperament are assets I can use. Even when I was a narcotics detective in Pittsburgh, I could stay unemotional and logically solve the puzzles that presented themselves as case files on my desk.

Some of the other cops kept their distance from me, not knowing how to take my dispassionate calculating nature. But for most of my time with the PD, they all respected my abilities and loyalty. That changed when I was abducted by a drug gang, tortured for weeks, and turned into an addict.

Don’t get me wrong. Nobody in the department blamed me for being taken captive.

No. It was when it became known I told my captors the details of ongoing narcotics operations and the identities of confidential informants that the narrative surrounding Detective Trevor Galloway changed.

I mean, I can’t blame the department for forcing me out after I was rescued. It was logical on their part and—justifiable or not—there was bound to be lingering resentment against me. Of course I didn’t ask to be kidnapped, tormented, and turned into a strung-out zombie. The brass should have recognized that fact and backed me. My own goddamned unit could have supported me, rather than shot sideway glances my direction. Any one of them would have broken quicker than I did, so who the hell are they to judge?

But, I suppose it’s understandable.

After the department pushed me away, I picked up a gig working for the District Attorney’s Office. It seemed like everything was going to be all right and my life was going to be back on track.

Then an assistant DA asked me to perjure myself and when I refused, he attacked my credibility and discussed my addiction issues in open court.

I have to admit to not handling that well and I was terminated from that position. They had to let me go. They had no choice in the matter. Of course it was the DA who was dirty and all I was doing was conducting myself honorably, and the fact that I only broke the liar’s nose is a testament to my self-control!

But hitting him left them no choice in the matter. And if they had even known that I sometimes see things—and people—who aren’t there, they would have gotten rid of me even sooner.

So, I suppose it was understandable.

Fortunately, all of that is behind me and now I have this new case to occupy my time. It’s an interesting case. Peter Lanskard, who owned a company called Mountain Resource Solutions, was murdered on his snow-covered estate in Central Pennsylvania.

The fact he was murdered isn’t really extraordinary, because he had some enemies. However, the sniper who got him skied into position, took an amazing shot, and skied away at a breakneck pace. That’s right—skied. At first I was surprised the year-old case hadn’t been solved. There could only be so many people with those skills who were connected to Lanskard.

But small-town police departments have their limitations and I assumed Washaway Township was no different. However, when I met the police chief at the original crime scene, I could tell she was no joke. Then the chief took me to the property adjacent to the Lanskard estate. That’s when I saw the problem. Peter Lanskard’s land backed up to a biathlon training camp where everyone can ski and shoot.

So here I am looking for a needle in a stack of needles and it seems nobody wants to talk to me. I stick out like a sore thumb in this town and nearly everyone wants me gone. These aren’t the city streets to which I’m accustomed and I can feel the resentment of the townspeople pressing in on me from all sides. And I’m being hunted. Or, at least I think I’m being hunted. A man called the Lithuanian is stalking me and he’s out for blood.

If he’s real.

I’m losing my bearings and I’m starting to feel the old itch in my veins that only the needle can scratch. It feels like everyone is against me and someone wants me dead. I came here as a favor and I didn’t even ask for this case. Just like I didn’t ask to be brutalized, or pumped full of heroin, or forced out of police work! I just want to solve my damn puzzles.

But, it’s okay.

I’ve mellowed.

Meet Trevor Galloway—He’s Mellowed
Oline Cogdill