This week: the two men who ruled the underworld of old Shanghai, plus a journey through India's new Gilded Age.
On Dec. 12, 1959, Capt. Jacques le Garrec, the narrator of British author Brydon’s provocative and unsettling first novel, returns in disgrace to his hometown of Sainte-Élisabeth in Brittany. He’s accused of committing a terrible crime in Algeria, where he has spent the last two years in the French army intelligence services interrogating Algerian insurgents. While le Garrec, a former police detective and WWII Resistance fighter, awaits trial, an old acquaintance asks him to look into the murder of Anne-Lise Aurigny, a brilliant high school student whose mutilated body was found outside Sainte-Élisabeth in a field of heather the previous winter. Le Garrec soon learns that Anne Lise’s father was a German officer and her mother was brutalized after the war as a supposed Nazi sympathizer. As le Garrec investigates further, he’s troubled by the memories of the atrocities he witnessed in Algeria and of the 19-year-old Algerian girl he was powerless to save. This is a remarkably assured debut by a gifted new writer.
Caveney (‘The Priest’ They Called Him) delivers a sharp, poignant memoir of anxiety and abuse. Growing up bookishly skittish in working-class 1970s northern England—“Writing about my working-class childhood feels like slipping on hand-me-down clothes”—Caveney nevertheless plots his own arc, while emboldening himself with the books of Kafka and the music of the Buzzcocks and Joy Division. The chronological plot of his youth is laid out in cinematic detail, including his mother’s dinners of meat and mushy peas (“food that is designed with insulation in mind”) and his dalliances with revolutionary Marxism and capital-L Literature (“I told her that after the revolution everyone would be a poet”). But a shadowy fury underlies this nervous self-deprecation, borne out of his being raped as a teenager by a priest who groomed his insecurities with predatory calculation. As the memoir lurches forward in jaunts of youthful self-discovery and setbacks, Caveney writes with stabs of both fury and self-denial (“This doesn’t matter. It’s not important. I’m not even here”) and anguished pleas to his abuser in order to make sense of it all. The result is an acidic, longing, and enraged memoir set to a postpunk soundtrack.
In this eye-opening rumination on wealth, power, and those who seek both, Crabtree, a former India correspondent for the Financial Times, ventures deep into the shadowy heart of India’s “black-money” economy. From the cantilevered skyscrapers of Mumbai’s billionaire elite to a neglected Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad, Crabtree brings a reporter’s precision and flair to his story, arguing that the rise of the “Bollygarchs” and the takeover of Indian politics by huge sums of private money has led to a boom-and-bust cycle in India’s industrial economy. Weaving in interviews with politicians, central bankers, and industrial tycoons, he concludes that a lack of state capacity in India—the famously byzantine business licensing system, as well as low levels of investment in infrastructure—has contributed to rent-seeking and crony capitalism on the one hand and populist politics with a Hindu nationalist tinge on the other. An inside look into the corridors of power, this is an invaluable commentary on Indian democracy and the forces that threaten it.
In this memorable, Zen Buddhist-centric novel, 17-year-old Essa, a native of Boulder, Colo., must care for her little sister, Puck, because their perpetually high-on-marijuana mother refuses to. Oliver, a recent transplant to Boulder, is also close to his younger sister, Lilly, and is grieving over how Lilly’s serious mental illness has affected their relationship and family. Over the course of slow, intense, and reflective alternating chapters, Essa and Oliver meet, fall in love, and face tremendous hardship with the awe-inducing beauty of the Colorado wilderness as a backdrop. France’s prose is dense with ideas and practices related to Zen Buddhism and thoughtful about how these practices apply to Essa’s thoughts and life struggles. France also shows her expertise in camping and survival in the wilderness, as Essa and Oliver become lost in the mountains during a storm and must fight for their lives—and Puck’s. Essa’s struggles with her irresponsible, absentee mother are fierce and poignant, as are Oliver’s in response to his sister’s schizophrenia. This is a beautiful, gentle, contemplative story certain to both fascinate and educate readers about a new way of encountering the world and all the challenges within it. Ages 14–up.
Drugs, gambling, vice, and banditry power China’s seaport mecca in this rollicking true crime saga. Historian French (Midnight in Peking) recreates Shanghai between the world wars, when its extraterritorial status—the United States, European nations, and Japan legally controlled parts of the city—made it a booming metropolis and home to a teeming expat community of Jews fleeing Nazism, Russians fleeing bolshevism, and shady Westerners fleeing their pasts. French’s panorama centers on Joe Farren, a Viennese Jew who became a dance-show impresario and casino-owner; and Jack Riley, an escaped convict from Oklahoma who ran slot machines, smuggled heroin, and financed Farren’s classier enterprises. In French’s wonderfully atmospheric portrait, Shanghai is a tapestry of grungy dive bars, swanky nightspots, drunken soldiers, brazen showgirls, Chinese gangsters, corrupt cops, and schemers like “Evil Evelyn,” a madam who enticed wealthy wives with gigolos and blackmailed them with the resulting photos. The 1937 Japanese military occupation darkens the party with war, privation, and despair. French’s two-fisted prose—“When Boobee hops on a bar stool, lights an opium-tipped cigarette, and crosses her long legs, the sound of a dozen tensed-up male necks swinging round is like... a gunshot”—makes this deep noir history unforgettable.
“How bold is a work of art that doesn’t tie it all up neatly at the end—that does something, abandons it, and moves on to something better?” asks Fusselman (Savage Park) of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker at the beginning of this energetic and poem-like essay. Exploring different aspects of the classic holiday ballet, Fusselman bounds with great dexterity from theme to theme—covering topics including addiction, motherhood, gender, and art—until she has transformed the traditional essay into something far wilder and more alive. “It is so unbelievably easy for one world to turn into another,” Fusselman observes while on a backstage tour of The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center as she watches the stagehands take down the set. “I am in this world, but sometimes I feel other ones pulling at me.” Throughout the essay she moves among worlds—the fictional setting of the ballet, her past, and Tchaikovsky’s era, among others—but she never fully situates the reader in any one setting, instead preferring the simultaneity of confusion and exploration: “I want to open the door and get out of the world./ I want to open the door and let more worlds in./ I want to be in two worlds at once.” And yet, despite the chaos this method and these desires engender, the author keeps herself, and her reader, grounded in reality: “The Nutcracker has bodies in it, and bodies always state the truth.” Like the ballet itself, the most profound resonances of this work are in its celebration of human capability and complication.
At the start of Jacobsen’s scalding sequel to 2017’s Trophy, Supt. Lene Jensen of Denmark’s national police force attends a lecture on terrorism at Copenhagen police headquarters. It’s been seven months since a suicide bomber struck Tivoli Gardens, the country’s largest amusement park, killing more than 1,000 people. So far no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the police are making no progress on the case. Obsessed by the death of a young Muslim woman she tried to help on a suicide hotline, Lene stubbornly pursues what she regards as links between the woman’s death and the Tivoli disaster. She defies her superiors and risks both her life and that of PI Michael Sander, with whom she worked in Trophy. Distinctive characters range from ineffective police and corrupt government officials to young Muslims preparing to die for their perverse cause. Jacobsen provides a searing view of the intractable conflict between civilized society and terrorists.
Set in 1945, Krugler’s superior second thriller featuring Lt. Ellis Voigt of the Office of Naval Intelligence (after 2016’s The Dead Don’t Bleed) finds Voigt the target of NKVD thugs seeking the truth about the fate of the missing Herbert Himmel, a Russian who used a clipping service as a cover for a Washington, D.C., spy ring. In the previous book, Voigt went undercover in Himmel’s business and was present at a meeting that Himmel had at an automat with a scientist from Los Alamos, N.Mex., who passed on secrets about a bomb being built in the desert. Voigt persuades his boss to send him on a mission to Los Alamos, where he will make contact with the Russian agents on his tail and offer them misinformation—in particular, that he forced the scientist spy to give him the package with the classified information meant for Himmel. Krugler’s further exploration of his lead’s moral ambiguity enhances a captivating story line that will appeal to fans of Joseph Kanon.
Pearce’s clever debut follows a plucky Londoner during the Blitz who dreams about becoming a war correspondent. When 22-year-old Emmeline Lake sees an ad for a “Junior” from the London Evening Chronicle’s publisher in 1940, she believes this will be the start of her journalism career. Alas, the job entails assisting Henrietta Bird, the advice columnist in Women’s Friend, a magazine dying off from fustiness. Henrietta is a literary Violet Crawley who won’t answer letters involving any unpleasantness, which eliminates most everything pertinent. Emmy, however, fails to destroy unsuitable letters as instructed, instead answering them privately under Mrs. Bird’s forged signature. Meanwhile, she and her best friend, Bunty, demonstrate resolve as bombs rain down night after night and Emmy’s fiancé informs her, via overseas telegram, that he is leaving her for a nurse. The novel has a wonderfully droll tone, a reminder of the exuberance of youth even under dire circumstances. Headlined by its winning lead character, who always keeps carrying on, Pearce’s novel is a delight.
Set in 1591, Trow’s dazzling ninth Kit Marlowe mystery (after 2017’s Eleventh Hour) sends playwright and spy Marlowe into the English countryside to help make arrangements for the aging Elizabeth I’s forthcoming royal progress, during which she will visit various loyal subjects wealthy enough to host her. But his true mission is to make sure that the queen will be in safe hands during the progress—and that turns out to be very much in doubt; this was a time of many Catholic plots against the throne, and some of the queen’s subjects are anything but loyal. Indeed, “if Her Majesty had invited herself to the Vatican, she couldn’t be in more danger,” says Tom Sledd, the stage manager at the Rose Theatre who’s Marlow’s garrulous number two in spycraft. As the conspiracy unfolds, the surprises that come with it are very well sprung. Real figures, ranging from the “wizard earl” of Northumberland to “Will Shaxsper,” add to the fun. A rich and imaginative story line, leavened with humor, sets this at the forefront of Tudor historicals.