This week: how fear has shaped America, plus a pulse-pounding crime novel set in Australia.

Signal Loss

Garry Disher. Soho Crime, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-1-61695-859-6

Early in Ned Kelly Award–winner Disher’s excellent seventh Hal Challis investigation (after 2012’s Whispering Death), a pair of hit men from Sydney execute a fencer of stolen property who has the bad luck to spot them in the act of disposing of a body in the rural peninsula south of Melbourne. Soon afterward, the killers unwittingly drive into the path of a wildfire and are burned to death. In the same area, an epidemic of meth-related “ice crimes” preoccupies Challis, who’s also working on a rash of thefts. Meanwhile, Senior Sergeant Coolidge, from a task force in Melbourne, mounts an operation on drug trafficking. And Challis’s girlfriend, Ellen Destry, who heads the local sex crimes unit, investigates a possible serial rapist. The story’s momentum never slows as Disher weaves these strands together with consummate skill and lyrical language (“The room was a hot, stale cave deep inside the police station and had never witnessed anything but loss and hopelessness”). This is a searing commentary on the meth crisis and its tremendous toll on users and communities alike.

Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics

R. Marie Griffith. Basic, $32 (416p) ISBN 978-0-465-09475-2

Religion historian Griffith (American Religions) takes a sweeping look at the roots of today’s culture wars over abortion, sexual identity, and the intersection of sexuality and racial differences in this exceptional cultural history. Griffith opens not with the free-wheeling sexual revolution of the 1960s but in the ’20s with Margaret Sanger’s efforts to make contraception more widely available. Griffith goes on to use D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover as her prime example of how sensibilities around sexuality changed dramatically during the 20th century—the novel first appeared in America, abridged, in 1928, and could not be published in full until more than three decades later. With her account of the role played by prominent clergy and religious movements working to liberalize abortion law, Griffith argues that Roe v. Wade is best understood not solely as part of the women’s liberation movement but in the context of religious support for abortion rights. Likewise, her account of the theology that justified racial segregation illustrates an area where religious and cultural beliefs clash. Griffith’s remarkably comprehensive book will be of interest to scholars and lay readers alike.

The Danger Within Us: America’s Untested, Unregulated Medical Device Industry and One Man’s Battle to Survive It

Jeanne Lenzer. Little, Brown, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-34376-3

Lenzer, a former physician associate who ditched her career to become an investigative reporter, exposes a dark aspect of the “medical industrial complex:” flaws in the development, regulation, and use of high-risk implantable medical devices. Lenzer focuses on the case of Dennis Fegan, a former Texas oil rig worker and firefighter whose vagus nerve stimulator—implanted to reduce his epileptic seizures—almost killed him. Through Fegan’s story, Lenzer sketches “a complicated web of human error, corporate manipulation, and regulatory failure” while delving into the massive problems that plague healthcare: inadequate clinical testing of high-risk medical devices, the FDA’s vulnerability to political interference, and ethically questionable corporate sales pitches to doctors. Lenzer concludes that the “underlying problem is the fact that we insist upon treating health care as a commodity rather than a common good.” Her platform of solutions includes reducing unnecessary treatments and tests, insulating researchers from market forces, converting to a single-payer health insurance program, and reforming the compromised FDA. Lenzer makes an excellent, often disturbing case for “a new national attitude toward healthcare.”

Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy

Elaine Tyler May. Basic, $30 (256p) ISBN 978-0-46505592-0

May (America and the Pill), a University of Minnesota history professor, provides valuable historical and cultural context for the current political moment with this sweeping and detailed examination of how Americans came to perceive the world as overwhelmingly dangerous. She begins with the Cold War, pinpointing fears of nuclear war as having motivated a shift of responsibility for security away from the government and toward individuals, who were encouraged to transform their private homes into shelters, or “fortresses,” capable of withstanding atomic fallout. That mind-set was accompanied by a more general movement away from communal engagement and toward “hunkering down” in isolation. She methodically dissects and debunks the rampant fearmongering, whether by alarmist politicians or violent Hollywood thrillers, that has led to hyperbolic views of the threats Americans actually face. While May is far from the first to question how likely it is that the average citizen will be the victim of a terrorist, few have been as effective at connecting the broad sweep of 20th-century U.S. history to modern-day policies, such as broadly defined gun rights and highly aggressive and punitive law enforcement. This is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the anxieties that occupy American politics.

Bunk 9’s Guide to Growing Up: Secrets, Tips, and Expert Advice on the Good, the Bad, and the Awkward

Adah Nuchi, illus. by Meg Hunt. Workman, $12.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-7611-9359-3

The enticing conceit behind this guide to puberty is that it’s written by nine girls who spend their summers at Camp Silver Moon. Left behind to educate future campers, the book covers topics that include breasts, menstruation, deodorant, hair removal, and hygiene; a scrapbook layout on lined-paper pages smartly underscores the “found notebook” idea. Hunt’s comics-style portraits of the girls include Polaroid-like snapshots of them through the years, along with a breast growth chart, a model of the reproductive system, and illustrated how-to sequences for using tampons and pads. The girls share anecdotes throughout, emphasizing how bodies develop differently. Channeling the girls’ realistic and reassuring voices, Nuchi captures the uncertainty and excitement of growing up while delivering needed information in a safe, sympathetic, and nurturing manner. Ages 8–12.

An Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett

Helen Smith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (448p) ISBN 978-0-374-28112-0

Smith, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, offers a superb biography of Edward Garnett, an English critic and editor who was best known for discovering and nurturing literary talents, among them Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, and T.E. Lawrence. Beyond exploring Garnett’s influence on a range of prominent early 20th-century authors, Smith probes Garnett’s difficult marriage with translator Constance Garnett, his affairs with other women, and his own attempts at authorship. Smith, as Garnett would have appreciated, has an eye for the telling detail (she describes a portrait of him with “his head inclined slightly to one side as if considering his response to a recent remark”), and her book paints a textured picture of what life was like for people of Garnett’s milieu. She offers insights too into Garnett’s critical consciousness, influenced by Russian writers and ever enthusiastic when encountering a fresh voice: he found, for example, an early draft of T.E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom “astounding.” It’s rare that the subject of a biography is as evidently generous and full of integrity as Garnett, so Smith has to work to find the flaws whose depiction is necessary to creating a balanced portrait; despite the mentions of his infidelities, readers will end up loving Garnett. With Smith’s fine sense of pacing and a fascinating subject, her book both delights and informs.