On literary vacay from her FBI agent Anna Grey series (North of Montana, White Shotgun), Smith journeys back to the not-quite-fabulous ’50s for a standalone tale of McCarthyism, evil politicians, the madness of crowds, and eventually homicide, all, alas, based on a real-life tragedy, the 1985 murders of a family in Seattle. Double alas, the novel’s mood seems uncomfortably close to today’s unpleasantly political, fear-mongering, fake-news-spewing atmosphere. The plot focuses on the Kuseks—Cal, a heroic WWII pilot and attorney, his wife Betsy, a nurse, and their two children Jo and Lance—who leave the concrete jungle of Manhattan for a small-town ranch in Rapid City, South Dakota, a gateway to Mt. Rushmore. Though strong Democrats, Cal and Betsy prosper in this bucolic Republican paradise, making friends and enjoying life—until Cal is tapped to run for the US Senate and his obnoxious right-wing brother learns of Betsy’s youthful flirtation with the Communist Party. He notifies the FBI, rumors abound, and Cal’s slimy con-man opponent, Thaddeus Haynes, concocts enough false news to turn Donald Trump’s hair, ah, white, pitting friends, neighbors, town, and state against the Kuseks. The novel opens in the mid-1980s, with an adult Jo reacting to the murders, then leaps back to the 1950s and the events that led up to them. Daytime Emmy Award-winning actress Cady McClain (Outstanding Supporting, 2004, As the World Turns) smartly captures each chapter’s mood—Jo’s reaction to the murders, the wariness of the Kuseks as they enter a new town and a new social scene, etc. With notable versatility she catches Cal’s easy self-confidence, Betsy’s general uncertainty, and their children’s early rebelliousness, which, after hearing the news about their “pinko” mother, morphs into confusion and fear. She’s also developed appropriate voices for a few loyal friends, like Cal’s business partner and his sweetly silly wife, and Verna Bismark, a hardboiled, progressive town doyenne who talked Cal into running for the Senate. McClain is equally successful in presenting the villains: the despicable blowhard brother, the faux-good-ol’-boy Hayes, assorted neighbors who slide from friendly chatter to sharp condemnation, and Jo’s lifelong opponent, snake-bad from youth to old age, with the deceptively innocent-sounding name of Honeybee Jones.
In each of Penny’s novels, and this is number 12, her main task, aside from preparing the jigsaw mystery with all parts fitting, has been to get her protagonist, Armand Gamache, formerly the homicide chief of the Sûreté du Québec, and his equally charismatic wife, Reine Marie, back to their, and readers’, beloved village of Three Pines, where dwells a fully developed cast of good Canadian companions—from eccentric artist Clara Morrow to the ultra-feisty old poet Ruth Zardo (and her pet duck). After his early retirement from the Sûreté, it would have been a simple matter for Penny to allow Armand and Reine Marie to settle down with their dog Henri in Three Pines and solve his crimes there. But the author, like her hero, prefers not to take the easy way. So, the ex-inspector, mainly recovered in body if not in soul from his last adventure and bored to the eyebrows with the sweet and simple life, has accepted a different assignment with the Sûreté, heading and improving its demoralized police academy. There he is confounded by the murder of a professor and the challenge of keeping four of the top cadets in line, concentrating, for some reason he doesn’t understand, on the pierced, tattooed, and surly Amelia Choquet. As an exercise, Gamache presents his cadet quartet with a mysterious old map found stuffed between the walls of the Three Pines bistro, tasking them to use teamwork to identify the mapmaker, his purpose, and why it was hidden. Reason enough for all to wind up in the snow-covered remote village. Reader Robert Bathurst (Downton Abbey’s Sir Anthony Strallan), who also narrated the last Gamache novel, The Nature of the Beast, has one of those crisp British voices that manage to dramatize without sacrificing clarity or elocutionary elegance. His Gamache is thoughtful, intelligent, and purposeful. The cadets’ voices are higher pitched and arch just enough to indicate their youth and impatience and his presentation of the prominent citizens of Three Pines seems on target, right down to Ruth Zardo’s rude squawks.
The celebrated Life magazine, though long gone as a topical weekly, lives on in one-shot newsstand items like this one, a compact illustrated summary of the life of Conan Doyle and the history of his most famous character. The spare but well-written text includes quotes from eminent Sherlockians Otto Penzler, Leslie Klinger, and Lyndsay Faye. Actors who played Holmes are pictured prominently, including William Gillette, John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Robert Downey, Jr. but not (as some online reviewers have lamented) Jeremy Brett. Novice fans and completist collectors will find this of interest, but there is little new for knowledgeable buffs. Though it will disappear from magazine racks in April, it will continue to be available through Amazon.
The 1969 demonstrations protesting a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, galvanized the homosexual rights movement. Three years before, George Baxt had introduced the flamboyant Pharoah Love, usually considered the first openly gay sleuth in mainstream US publishing, in A Queer Kind of Death, and one year later Joseph Hansen’s more down-to-earth insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter would debut in Fadeout. But long before the 1960s, crime writers had included gay characters, whether direct or implied, comic or tragic, disparaging or sympathetic. Mystery historian Evans and his contributors consider some of these in an excellent collection of essays, most original, all marked by strong scholarship and readability. The only two reprints are taken (“in different form”) from Lucy Sussex’s 2015 biography of Fergus Hume and Rick Cypert’s 2005 book on Mignon G. Eberhart. Among other authors discussed (some gay, some straight) are Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Josephine Tey, Todd Downing, Beverley Nichols, and Patricia Highsmith. Tom Nolan adds new details to his previous writings about Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar. The last two essays consider works by Hansen and Baxt.
Editor Evans, arguably his own best contributor, discusses G.D.H. Cole, the team of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler (a.k.a. Patrick Quentin, Jonathan Stagge, and Q. Patrick), two gay writers who had appeared in drag in Ivy League college shows (Yale’s Rufus King and Dartmouth’s Clifford Orr), and Gore Vidal writing as Edgar Box.
The gay sensibility of writers like Downing, King, and the Quentin team, which seems so obvious when read now, presumably sailed over the heads of most of the authors’ 1930s and 1940s readers.
Our lives are forged on the anvil of our childhood. What we experience as children shape us in ways, good and bad, that influence everything that comes after. I could talk about the bad. Couldn’t everyone? It’s such a juicy topic and deliciously informative in its own way. But let me talk about the good instead. Because in the end, for all of us, what was good about our early lives becomes the firm ground on which we stand when the rest of the world seems to be going to hell. So let me talk about stories, how I came to them early because of my father, and what this has meant to me across six decades.
My father was a high school English teacher, a man who appreciated poetry especially. Before the financial needs of our family forced him to leave college, he’d planned to write his master’s thesis on e.e. cummings. My earliest best memories are of his sonorous voice reading poetry to my brothers and my sister and me to quiet us at bedtime. Although he did sometimes read e.e. cummings—“In just spring when the world is mud luscious”—more often he chose the great story poems, perfect for firing a child’s imagination. I grew up on “The Highwayman” (“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees”), “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (“Half a league, half a league, half a league onward), “Little Orphan Annie” (“An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you ef you don’t watch out”), and “Gunga Din” (“Though I’ve belted you and flayed, By the livin’ Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din”). Every night, we lay rapt as my father read, and when he’d finished we’d sometimes beg him to read the same one again. The poems became so familiar that to this day, for many of them, I can still recall every verse.
Like everyone’s childhood, mine had dark periods. My mother was hospitalized for long stretches, months on end. We moved around a good deal, and our lives were often about starting over somewhere new, strangers in a strange land. There weren’t a lot of constants to keep us grounded. But the poems and the sense of peace that always descended on us when my father read them was one.
As a storyteller, I garnered a great deal from that bedtime reading ritual: an appreciation for the beauty of perfect cadence, admiration for just the right word in just the right place, an understanding of the emotional power wielded by a good story or poem, and maybe most especially, the mysterious way in which words themselves can move us so very deeply. When I write, as I write, I read my work out loud. Although I don’t sound exactly like my father, I still often hear the echo of his voice and feel the peace that comes with it.
Raised in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, William Kent Krueger briefly attended Stanford University—before being kicked out for radical activities. After that, he logged timber, worked construction, tried his hand at freelance journalism, and eventually ended up researching child development at the University of Minnesota. He currently makes his living as a full-time author. He’s been married for over 40 years to a marvelous woman who is a retired attorney. He makes his home in St. Paul, a city he dearly loves.
Krueger writes a mystery series set in the north woods of Minnesota. His protagonist is Cork O’Connor, the former sheriff of Tamarack County and a man of mixed heritage—part Irish and part Ojibwe. His work has received a number of awards, including the Minnesota Book Award, the Loft-McKnight Fiction Award, the Anthony Award, the Barry Award, the Dilys Award, and the Friends of American Writers Prize. His last seven novels were all New York Times bestsellers.
Ordinary Grace, his standalone novel published in 2013, received the Edgar Award, given by the Mystery Writers of America in recognition for the best novel published in that year. Sulfur Springs, number 16 in his Cork O’Connor series, will be released in September 2017.
This “Writers on Reading” essay was originally published in “At the Scene” enews May 2017 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.