Ken Bruen’s short story collection The Galway Trinity is both a literary and visual treat, arriving with burly, brutal illustrations by always on-the-money illustrator Phil Parks. The title may be a slight misnomer, because the collection contains four short stories, not three (a fourth is set in South London). Burnt-out ex-Garda detective Jack Taylor represents the Galway contingent, and he does so with such angst that stones would weep for him. Wry, bitter, and trying hard not to care about the misshapen humanity he mixes with, Taylor bolts back Jameson as if each bottle was the last on Earth. In “The Dead Room,” he investigates the death of an elderly woman and hates what he finds. In “And All the Swans Are Dying,” he equates a swan’s death to his own lost love. In “Galway Hooker” (referring to a boat, not a prostitute), he corners an arsonist. The plots of these stories may be gripping, but it has always been Bruen’s ragged poet’s voice that captures us. About Irish colleens, he writes, “They are a race apart, they get fixed on a man, he’s done, delivered and God betide the ejit who gets in the middle.” About a sleazy Galway pub, he observes, “The King’s Arms had nothing majestic about it, it was a dump that seemed to cater to low lifes of all kinds, it smelled of desperation and dead dreams and worse, stale curry.” Of the old Irish gods, he says, “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first torture the living be-jayus out of.” Like all memorable protagonists, it is Jack Taylor’s curse to pretend stoicism while bleeding from a thousand psychic wounds. “Who the fook cares?” he mutters, trying to convince himself he doesn’t “give a fook” that young men are being murdered all over Galway. Belying his own words, he perpetually rises from his bar stool and staggers off to avenge the dead. If men are judged more by actions than their words, Jack is a candidate for sainthood. But if words make the saint, Ken Bruen already has his halo.
Mark Douglas-Home's The Sea Detective is a wrenching, brilliant novel which uses the science of oceanic currents to tell what at first appears to be two different stories. The book opens with a harrowing chapter showing Preeti, a 13-year-old Indian girl, being sold into international sexual slavery by her despicable father. By the end of the chapter, Preeti is dead, drowned off the Scottish coast by her pedophile captors when she is no longer of use. The action then moves to Edinburgh, and the computer-filled flat of Cal McGill, a self-absorbed PhD oceanography candidate, who—using the science of oceanic currents—is attempting to track the origin of severed feet washed ashore on various Scottish beaches. When the two stories blend—Preeti’s and Cal’s—we learn that betrayal comes in many forms, frequently delivered by those we trust the most. Although Preeti died at the hands of her captors, her friend Basanti has escaped. Unlike many of the captive children, Basanti can read and write, and while scrabbling through a dumpster for food, she finds a newspaper article that sends her on a dangerous journey across Scotland seeking justice for Preeti. This is an extraordinary book for several reasons. Because of its engrossing characters, The Sea Detective nimbly straddles the difficult border between social protest books and “mere entertainment.” Hermit-like Cal isn’t always likable; he hasn’t behaved well toward the women in his life, so he makes a surprising, if initially unwilling, hero. And child prostitutes Preeti and Basanti display the heart and grit to make a lasting impact on all the lives they touch. So read The Sea Detective for its thrills and chills, but don’t ignore its deeper message: prostitution is not a victimless crime, especially when children are involved.
Victoria Jenkins’ An Unattended Death gives us Irene Chavez, a small-town cop in Washington State, who once aspired to a law degree, but put her dreams aside to become a wife and mother. Now a widow as her son enters his risky teenage years, she often feels overwhelmed by her duties, both at home and at work. In other words, she’s enough like us that we can all relate. When the body of a young psychiatrist is found floating in a nearby slough, Chavez heads up the investigation only to find that the dead woman’s wealthy family prefers the case quickly be closed, and the death labeled an accident. Their apparent lack of curiosity and grief is so odd that Chavez’s suspicions are aroused. Jenkins’ extraordinarily good writing allows her to weave a large and diverse number of conflicts into her whodunit narrative: home versus work; concern versus apathy; memory versus denial—all portrayed with that subtle, certain hand found only in the very best of crime fiction. The beauty and danger of Puget Sound provide the perfect backdrop for a mystery that has us reexamining our own close relationships, wondering if we know our loved ones as well as we think we do. Yet there is a lack of cynicism in An Unattended Death that has become increasingly rare in contemporary literature, and for that, we can look to Officer Irene Chavez, a woman who may fear the truth, but seeks it anyway.
The Cat Did Not Die isn’t really about a cat. Yes, there is a cat in the book, and no, the cat doesn’t die. But it is actually a psychological suspense novel about a woman who commits a violent act and then spends the rest of the book in self-destructive denial. When Beth comes across a mentally challenged man hiding in an old shed, she mistakes his alarmed response for an attack and batters him to death with a nearby axe. When her boyfriend Ulf, a journalist, discovers the body, he is unwillingly drawn into a plot to cover up the death. Soon, their formerly strong relationship begins to deteriorate. Lie piles upon lie as the action moves from coastal Sweden to Tanzania, where Ulf and Beth’s sister Juni, a photographer, are researching the Maasai tribe, with the disturbed Beth in tow. Things do not end well. The Nordic countries have a reputation for chilly noirs, and prize-winning Frimansson upholds that reputation with a vengeance here. Although Beth is a less-than-sympathetic character, the quality of Frimansson’s writing is such that we are drawn into her tortured mind despite ourselves. But all is not doom and gloom in The Cat Did Not Die. As a foil to Beth’s dark imaginings, the author gives us Kaarina, the simple, justice-seeking farm woman who loved the unnamed victim. Kaarina and the titular cat she cares for emerge as beams of light in an otherwise midnight-colored novel.
Bill Hopkins’ Courting Murder is an unusual hybrid of a mystery, serious in the first chapters, then rising to humor as the body count rises. When Rosswell Carew, a small-town judge, discovers a murdered man and a woman in a nearby wilderness park and the bodies promptly disappear, he decides to investigate the unusual goings-on. Realizing he doesn’t know enough, he enlists Ollie, a local snitch and petty criminal, to help. And that’s when things get weird. Too weird for Sheriff Charles “Frizz” Dodson, who—although stumped about the killings—doesn’t trust either Rosswell or Ollie. Rosswell resembles a loose cannon more than a judge, and Ollie is more apt to be found sitting in a cell than helping the police. What ensues is a romp through baked pie contests, motorcycle rallies, and large sums of dirty money. Author Hopkins, a judge himself, has a tendency to play fast and loose with the law in Courting Murder, but that just adds to the fun. One warning: careful readers might want to keep notes on who’s who—just because a character starts off in the book using one name doesn’t mean he/she will be using the same name by the last page. As it turns out, small Missouri towns are rife with people living under aliases.