This week: around the world in 20 languages, plus the love-hate relationship between L.A. and its inhabitants.
In Ahnhem’s intricately plotted third Fabian Risk novel (after 2017’s Ninth Grave), police detective Risk is struggling with his deteriorating marriage and his troubled teenage son, Theodor, when he and other members of the Helsingborg crime squad, led by Astrid Tuvesson, become involved in a bizarre case. Wealthy IT magnate Peter Brise appears to have died in a car crash, but forensic evidence proves that Brise died two months earlier. As the bodies of other wealthy people pile up, Risk and his fellow officers realize that serial killers are stealing the identities of their victims. Meanwhile, Risk’s Danish police counterpart, Dunja Hougaard, is stuck in out-of-the-way Zealand, where she’s tracking a ring of disaffected teens known as “happy slappers” who randomly assault people—and Theodor is involved with them. Readers will sympathize with Risk, a decent man caught between the demands of his family and his job, and such well-drawn supporting characters as Tuvesson, who’s sinking into alcoholism. Ahnhem unflinchingly unveils the monstrous crimes lurking beneath Scandinavia’s seemingly placid surface.
Barbash’s spirited latest revolves around a family that lives in the Dakota, the Upper West Side apartment building where Rosemary’s Baby was set and outside of which John Lennon was assassinated. Here, in 1980, 23-year-old Anton Winter is just back from a stint with the Peace Corps in Africa, where he contracted malaria. While recovering, he works for Teddy Kennedy’s presidential campaign (Anton’s mother is friends with Teddy’s wife); goes sailing with his neighbor, John Lennon; gets a job as a busboy at a restaurant in Central Park; romances an English journalist; and—most importantly—helps his father, Buddy Winter, a famous TV talk show host (think Dick Cavett) who had a nervous breakdown two years ago and walked off his show, attempt a comeback. Barbash (The Last Good Chance) seamlessly mixes real-life celebrities into his fictitious narrative. All the backstage show business details ring true, as do the author’s exhaustingly encyclopedic cultural references for 1980. This book is packed with diverting anecdotes and a beguiling cast, making for an immensely entertaining novel.
In 2006, novelist David Lockman, the focus of Cross’s outstanding fifth mystery featuring forensic psychologist Kate Hanson (after 2017’s Something Evil Comes), was convicted of the murder of 30-year-old Della Harrington. Ten years later, his appeal to have the verdict overturned for insufficient evidence is granted, and the case is assigned to the city of Birmingham’s Unsolved Crime Unit. Kate’s job is to reinterview surviving witnesses, profile the killer based on a reexamination of the crime scene and forensic evidence, and find new leads that may have escaped the original police officers, who soon settled on Lockman as their prime suspect. She and her team discover that key witnesses weren’t completely honest for a variety of reasons, including covering up unsavory wrongdoings of their own. Lockland’s accusation of wrongful conviction against the police department ratchets up the pressure. Cross, herself a forensic psychologist, plays fair with the reader right up to the surprising conclusion. Agatha Christie fans will be enthralled.
Linguist Dorren (Lingo) expertly unpacks the baffling exceptions and structural oddities of the world’s 20 most-spoken languages in his delightful latest. After noting that mastery of the full list would allow fluent conversation with three-quarters of the world’s population, Dorren begins his linguistic journey in Vietnam, home of the 20th most-spoken language. Chapters open with capsule descriptions that detail regions where each language is spoken, number of speakers, script, grammar, sounds, loanwords, and “exports” (words adopted into other languages), followed by an idiosyncratic essay on striking elements of the featured language (e.g., there are no articles in the Russian language; Portuguese has 15 vowel sounds that can be “combined into many different diphthongs and triphthongs”). Fifteen pages per chapter sets a brisk pace, but Dorren always succeeds in sharing his delight at the intricacies and compromises of human communication. His focus varies widely: for example, the “linguistic gender apartheid” of Javanese (at #16) follows a pointed discussion on the Tamil language in India and Sri Lanka (“the Tamil Tigers were the protagonists in a civil war that tore the island of Sri Lanka apart.... And the conflict was triggered by language”; with 90 million speakers, Tamil is the 18th most-spoken language). Yet whether he is debunking common misunderstandings about Chinese characters or detailing the rigid caste distinctions ossified in Javanese, Dorren educates and fascinates. Word nerds of every strain will enjoy this wildly entertaining linguistic study.
This brilliant, incisive work from biographer, novelist, and memoirist Gordon (Reading Jesus) examines the relationship—and tension—between 20th-century Christian philosopher Thomas Merton’s dual roles as writer and monk. Gordon approaches her subject through four facets of Merton’s writing life: his relationship with the church that censored him; his bestselling memoir, The Seven-Story Mountain; his novel My Argument with the Gestapo; and his private journals (which Gordon quotes from extensively). The author depicts a man often in conflict with himself and his church, a man who felt compelled to write and yet who hated being pressured to write: “I am sickened by being treated as an article for sale, as a commodity... God have mercy on me,” and later, “Today I feel hateful, and miserable, exhausted, and I would gladly die... Abbot Dom James [his host and patron] is in absolute control of a bird that everyone wants to hear sing.” The section on his journals, where Merton expressed himself freely, is the strongest part of the book—particularly Gordon’s reaction to entries written shortly before Merton’s death in 1968. “Because this flawed mess of a man lived every day with fullness, with a heartfelt passion,” Gordon writes, “I close the journal, and I weep.” Readers will be just as affected by this intelligent, moving book.
Keck (In a Time of Treason) concludes his Tales of Durand trilogy with this superlative fantasy epic, which sees the warrior Durand Col take his place among battles and treachery that threaten the kingdom of Errest the Old. Durand stands as champion to Abravanal, Duke of Gireth and holder of the Duchy of Yrlac. Although the Yrlacies are restless under Abravanal’s rule, the duke is commanded to ride with his household to the Fellwood Marches by his unhinged king, Ragnal. Yrlaci rebels harry the soldiers of Gireth on the road to the Fellwood, and, once there, they are chased by the inhuman host of maragrim, “hideous in their innumerable deformities.” Durand must rescue the duke’s daughter, Almora, from the Hornbearer, leader of the nightmares, and then lead the ducal army against the maragrim as they surge toward Eldinor, Errest’s capital. Keck sends the stalwart Durand through darkness and a lost land, facing terrors and beset by the dead. Human politics and dreadful foes are combined in this tale that stands with the very best fantasies.
The love-hate relationship between L.A. and its inhabitants comes alive in this scintillating collection of letters and diary entries. Literary critic Kipen (California in the 1930s) gathers passages from 16th-century explorers, 18th-century missionaries, 19th-century soldiers, and 20th-century writers, actors, producers, and movie business wannabes. Common themes emerge—golden climate, far-flung geography (Henry Miller: “[i]f you want to take a walk, you get in your car”), Hollywood absurdism (P.G. Wodehouse: “they didn’t want what I did, but they paid me $5,000 for something I hadn’t done”), the heartbreak of creative differences (F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Oh Joe, can’t the producers be wrong? I’m a good writer—honest”)—and provoke wildly different reactions from the well-chosen observers quoted. The result is a Los Angeles that’s good (Edgar Rice Burroughs: “I never loved any place in my life as I do this”), bad (Westbrook Pegler: “that big, sprawling, incoherent, shapeless, slobbering civic idiot”), ugly (Hart Crane: “this Pollyanna greasepaint pinkpoodle paradise”), and unique (Ryan Reynolds: “People in L.A. are deathly afraid of gluten.... You could rob a liquor store in this city with a bagel”). Readers fascinated by the town will find an engrossing trove of colorful, witty insights here.
In this massive, masterful history, author and lawyer Morton-Jack (The Indian Army on the Western Front) illuminates the WWI contributions of the far-flung, multicultural Indian army. He tells “not only of the Indians’ part in the Allied victory over the Central Powers, but also of soldiers’ personal discoveries on their four-year odyssey.” He mines previously unpublished letters and postwar interviews to reveal how Indian officers and enlisted men, as British colonial subjects and people of color, experienced military life. He writes with authority about the wrenching battles of Ypres, Gallipoli, Kut, the Somme, and East Africa, expertly weaving in how soldiers’ political loyalty and Muslim soldiers’ interest in jihad affected military campaigns. By war’s end, the Indians’ sense of unity with the British barely masked growing nationalist sentiment on the subcontinent. This book is essential for devotees of WWI military history and those fascinated by the complexities of empire.
London apothecary Jem Flockhart tackles two cases in Thomson’s standout third Victorian mystery (after 2017’s Dark Asylum). Jem receives a message from her friend John Aberlady, who works at the Seaman’s Floating Hospital, a decommissioned naval frigate colloquially known as the Blood and Fleas, imploring her to come quickly. The ominous final sentence reads: “Come now, Jem, but come ready to face the Devil.” When Jem boards the Blood, which is anchored in the Thames, she learns that Aberlady has been missing for a week. In the course of her search for him, Jem finds the body of prostitute Mary Mercer in the water near the Blood. Soon she is also seeking Mary’s killer. The discovery validates Jem’s father’s grim dictum that “the corpses of men find their way into the river by accident. Women’s arrive there by design.” While the puzzle element of the plot is first-rate, what really distinguishes Thomson’s work is her depiction of London’s poor, whose precarious river-based livelihoods depend “on the direction of the wind.” Readers will eagerly await Jem’s next outing.