For the armchair adventurers and detectives among us, Kate Dyer-Seeley’s Scene of the Climb should head the must-read list. First in a promising new series, Scene of the Climb introduces aspiring Portland journalist Meg Reed. As the daughter of late legendary local journalist Charlie Reed, Meg’s career path should have been easy, and indeed she had secured a post-graduation position with the Portland paper, but when the economy tanked, so did the possibility of gainful employment. Sleeping on the couch in her best friend’s apartment, Meg becomes increasingly desperate for income, until good fortune strikes—or so it seems. One typically rainy day, Meg visits her favorite coffee house and meets Greg Dixon, publisher of Northwest Extreme, a magazine devoted to on-the-spot coverage of extreme sports. When Greg discovers that Meg is a journalist, he invites her to submit her clips and offers her a much-needed job. Never mind that Meg is something of an imposter: a true journalist but no participant in extreme sports. This is easy enough to mask in the office setting, but when a veteran reporter is sidelined by injuries, Meg receives the plum assignment to cover the final stage of extreme sports event Race the States. The assignment requires that Meg accompany the remaining three contestants on a climb of Oregon’s peaks. She finds herself in the precarious position of faking expertise and confronting the daunting challenge of following the three contestants on a grueling hike. When, finally, Meg cannot go another step, she fakes a fall, which almost becomes deadly when she slides precariously close to the edge of the mountain. While Meg escapes serious injury, she witnesses the suspicious fall of one of the contestants, as he plunges to his death. Thus begins the real challenge for Meg, how to convince Greg and the police that someone pushed the victim over the edge. Author Dyer-Seeley weaves an intriguing plot featuring the rugged Oregon landscape and persistent protagonist Meg.
In the often hilarious, consistently outrageous No Hero, Jonathan Wood introduces Oxford police detective Arthur Wallace, one of the least confident adventure heroes you will ever encounter. Wallace is a by-the-numbers type who, during an ongoing murder investigation, is drafted into MI 37, England’s nearly forgotten, chronically underfunded paranormal investigative agency. Asked to lead a colorful team of misfits (including a battery-chewing sorcerer and a belligerent, sword-wielding Scotswoman), Wallace finds himself opposing a group of otherworldly beings known as The Progeny, who hope to open a door to our reality for their parents, the ominously named Feeders, whose coming means the end of humanity.
The first book in a planned trilogy, No Hero is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Wood plops his hapless, but winning, everyman hero directly into an outrageous, high-stakes battle between humanity and cosmic evil. It makes for one hell of a ride, boding well for future installments. Luckily, readers won’t have to wait long for those sequels, as books two and three will be published within months of this very fine adventure.
Georges Simenon’s Parisian cop Jules Maigret investigated over a hundred cases between 1931 and 1972. Alder considers some examples, mostly from the Depression 1930s, to see how they reflect the political, social, and economic history of France over that period, particularly their view of class differences. The viewpoint is avowedly, though not oppressively, Marxist. It would be easy for such a discussion to bog down in literary and political jargon, but Alder is too clear and careful a writer for that. The ideal reader would have an equal interest in France, Simenon, and Marxian theory.
At one point, the name of Burgess Meredith, director of the Maigret film The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1950), is reversed as Meredith Burgess. African American comedian Godfrey Cambridge becomes Cambridge Godfrey. How fleeting is fame!
Not for nothing are reviewers comparing Olen Steinhauer to John le Carré. Both authors write complex, cynical novels of political intrigue featuring an insider’s knowledge of spycraft based either on experience or an amazingly informed imagination. Both began their writing careers with series books. Le Carré broke through to spy superstardom with the standalone The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. (Actually, his series character George Smiley appears in Cold, but is emphatically not its protagonist.) Steinhauer has been edging his way upward with each of his two series’ entries, but his new standalone, a multi-character, multilayered mixture of espionage and human frailty just may be his major game changer.
Set in 2011 after the Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings, it hinges on a supposedly deep-sixed CIA clandestine operation, appropriately called “Stumbler,” that was designed to foment a similar revolution in Libya to remove Gaddafi from power. When American diplomat Emmett Kohl is assassinated in a Budapest restaurant, his connection to Stumbler, along with scattered reports of missing Libyan exiles, suggests the operation is back in play, but perhaps not by the agency. This has a galvanizing effect on most of the novel’s major characters—the CIA’s man in Cairo Stan Bertolli, Jibril Aziz, the humanitarian Libyan-born American analyst who designed the plan, and Omar Halawi, a wily Egyptian intelligence operative who is definitely the smartest guy in the room. The effect Kohl’s death has on his wife Sophie is quite another matter. Only minutes before witnessing his murder, she’d confessed to a one-night affair with Bertolli in Cairo. Steinhauer places Sophie at the center of much of the novel, overcoming the shock of Emmett’s murder, dealing with her guilt because of the affair, drifting off into memories of their past life (some of which, in retrospect, are more political than they seemed at the time). While she struggles to come to grips with his death, the other leads are either racing to stop Stumbler or help it to proceed, mindful of the fact that a very effective assassin is removing players from the game.
Actor Edoardo Ballerini (Ripper Street, Boardwalk Empire) narrates with a surprisingly soft voice, but one with which he effectively expresses emotion and tension. Equally effective is his subtle but distinctive shift in tone and mood to differentiate one character from another. His Sophie, for example, speaks with only a slightly higher pitch than normal, nothing near the usual falsetto, changing it from flat, when reacting to Emmett’s death, to dreamy, when reminiscing. His varied Egyptian accents seem authentic to me (not the best judge) but what’s more important is that Jibril’s conversation is animated and energetic while the older, more experienced Omar sounds weary and deeply cynical. This is the kind of audio one wishes were more prevalent: a fine novel, intelligently performed.
Ed Gorman is one of the best short-story writers around, in any genre, so it’s always a pleasure to find a new collection of his work. The latest is Scream Queen and Other Tales of Menace. Among other dark and unforgettable stories included are “En Famille,” which is frightening in a way that most stories can’t be; “The Brasher Girl,” which is the basis for a fine novel, Cage of Night; and of course “Scream Queen,” a classic shocker. But Gorman’s stories don’t shock like others. The payoff is earned through the characters’ emotion and pain.