Saturday, 04 February 2023

Everybody Knows 
by Jordan Harper
Mulholland Books, January 2023, $28

There’s a lot of SoCal mileage traversed in Jordan Harper’s noirish Everybody Knows, as its damaged protagonists investigate a death that leads to grim discoveries in the land of palm trees and dreamers.

With stop-offs in Brentwood, West Hollywood, Koreatown, Silverlake, East L.A., Calabasas, and more, the author—an Edgar-winner for his 2017 debut novel She Rides Shotgun—delves into the darkness overshadowing the glittery cityscapes and the souls of its power-hungry characters. It’s a bumpy, bruising, bloody journey told in short, choppy James Patterson-esque sentences. Harper, a writer-producer for TV, keeps adjectives to a minimum and cuts to the chase.

The book opens at the Sunset Strip’s famed Chateau Marmont, where Mae Pruett, a publicist specializing in damage control, tracks down troubled actress Hannah Heard. Pruett is in crisis management; Heard is a perpetual crisis. Not terribly likable (no one in this book is, really) Heard came to fame as a teen in the TV series called What If? Her many problems are tied to her tenure on the show where the creator/showrunner is known for proclivities with his beautiful underage talent, male and female. Everybody whispers about it. Nobody dares talk.

Soon Mae’s attention is divided when her superior, a PR “black-bag wizard,” is killed in a carjacking. He was just about to bring Mae on an off-the-books job, one he said would make her rich. Wondering if the confidential assignment was related to his death, Mae begins her own investigation. This leads to a reunion with a former lover, a disgraced cop-turned-muscle for a major private security firm. The hulking Chris Tamburro (who sports a stubble and a 3XL tracksuit) has his own suspicions about the case and readily teams with Mae to uncover the truth.

Mae and Chris have long buried their own ugly truths as pain-dealers. Chris's sins include physical violence (delivered at the command of his employer); Mae’s work demands ugly psychological strong-arming. Like most of the rich and famous people she deals with, Mae is about artifice: originally from the Ozarks, she’s shed her past and her twang for steely resolve. She lets up a bit at home, where a rescue dog reminds us that she’s got a soft side. But like everyone else on her horizon, she’s driven by the lure of money—which in this novel equates to power and freedom. As the book’s epigraph, by Cuban poet José Martí reads, “I have lived in the monster and I know its entrails.”

As Mae and Chris carry out their private surveillance the skies around them sometimes burn bright. Someone is torching L.A.’s homeless encampments. Meantime, politics and power-brokers and ripped-from-the-headlines subplots converge, and what was once viewed as a seemingly random death reveals a far-reaching web.

There are ultimately too many threads to that web and a too-thick mélange of characters. But for those who want a kinetic read, and a L.A. tour that doesn’t require use of a navigation app, Everybody Knows is a full-throttle ride. Just don’t expect to smile.

Southern California native Pat H. Broeske is a longtime reviewer for Mystery Scene. As a mystery devotee, and a former film industry journalist, she often writes about the intersection of Hollywood & crime, including film noir.   

Review: "Everybody Knows" by Jordan Harper
Pat H. Broeske
Wednesday, 01 February 2023

1989 by Val McDermid

by Val McDermid
Little, Brown Paperback (UK), February 2023

Every year legendary Scottish storyteller Val McDermid harnesses her own popularity to showcase some of the most interesting new voices in the genre at her sold-out “New Blood” panel at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England. (This year’s panel included South Carolina debut novelist Stacy Willingham, British-Australian author Emma Styles, and indigenous filmmaker turned crime novelist Michael Bennett.) But while McDermid is always keen to uplift and shine light on others, her latest novel 1989 shows the modern-day Queen of Crime’s own crown still glistens brightly.

Ten years on in time and place from last year’s introduction to the life and crimes (solving) of Allie Burns, the Scottish journalist is now living in Manchester with her girlfriend Rona, tapping out stories and managing freelancers as head of northern news for a tabloid with a notorious owner.

AIDS is rampant, the world is mourning Lockerbie victims killed in a terrorist bombing of a Pan Am flight, and both the Iron Curtain and the Iron Lady (conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) are still standing strong—for now. It’s a time soaked in grief, and meanwhile Allie’s big boss, Ace Lockhart, is in a media war with Rupert Murdoch while also—unbeknownst to almost everyone—being the target of someone linked to his wartime past.

Allie’s investigations into why AIDS patients are migrating south from Scotland are getting warped and rewritten into sensationalist trash to fuel hysteria. As Allie digs into truths powerful people want hidden, she journeys to East Berlin, putting herself behind an Iron Curtain that’s beginning to corrode.

1989 is a wonderfully absorbing novel that gets increasingly layered as chapters fly by. McDermid masterfully juggles several big real-life issues along with intertwined crime plotlines: abduction, pseudo-spy craft, murder, revenge. From Allie and Rona to several new faces, the characters are fascinating. Two books in, this is a terrific series, and I can’t wait to see what unfolds as the millennium looms.

MS Winter Issue #174A review of this novel first appeared in Mystery Scene Issue #174, Winter. 

Review: "1989" by Val McDermid
Craig Sisterson
Monday, 30 January 2023

The Big Bundle by Max Allan Collins

The Big Bundle
by Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime, January 2023, $25.95

Opening in October 1953, Max Allan Collins’ 18th Nathan Heller adventure finds the middle-aged detective in Kansas City, consulting on a kidnapping, this time involving Bobby Greenlease, the 6-year-old son of multimillionaire auto dealer Robert Cosgrove Greenlease, Sr. Although Heller works with both the local police and the FBI, the case ends tragically, with the death of the child and half of the ransom money seemingly vanished.

Collins then fast forwards to August 1958, as Heller covertly investigates what happened to the missing ransom, at the behest of both Jimmy Hoffa and Robert F. Kennedy, who want to uncover the sordid truth about the tainted money.

Simply put, if you’ve enjoyed this series thus far, you’ll find plenty to like about Collins’ latest fictional foray, as, like previous installments, the story expertly interweaves fact and fiction in an entertaining and winning manner. If you’re new to the series, this is a great place to start, as it finds Collins at the top of his considerable game.

The author’s crisp writing and canny plotting, supplemented by his thorough and revealing research, are on ample display from start to finish. It’s an impressive piece of work, especially when you consider that this MWA Grandmaster, who has been at it for close to half a century now, doesn’t falter once.

MS Winter Issue #174A review of this novel first appeared in Mystery Scene Issue #174, Winter. 

Review: "The Big Bundle" by Max Allan Collins
Hank Wagner