Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

In memory of Pat Gorman,

who loved a good mystery.

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Laura Lippman weaves a complicated murder mystery in her latest suspenseful crime tale Wilde Lake. Set in Columbia, Maryland, one of the first planned communities of the seventies, with communal mailboxes, open space schools, and an all-inclusive philosophy, intended to eliminate racial, religious, and class segregation, the story flips through the community’s regression, going back and forth from it inception to the present day.  Not all goes as planned.

Having lived in the area for many years, the references to familiar landmarks were fun to revisit:  Hausner’s restaurant, the Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia Mall, and the scandal-driven Governor Marvin Mandel.  Wilde Lake is still there as is Lake Kittamaqundi.

Although crime is the focus of the book with two murders across thirty years intersecting across the lives of the characters, memory has a major influence on the outcome.  We remember what we think happened and see what we want to see.  Noone is immune, from Lu Brant, the first woman State’s Attorney to her father, the beloved retired State’s Attorney.  Lipman reminds us of the stories and myths created in each family, some to cover pain, others to compensate, but most just to pass on a better life to another generation.  The truth usually emerges, as it does in Lippman’s story.

Life goes on and those who die become beloved.

9780062083456_p0_v3_s192x300    A Short Summary of the Plot from Harper Collins:

“Luisa “Lu” Brant, the newly elected state’s attorney, is prosecuting a controversial case involving a disturbed drifter accused of beating a woman to death. Her intensive preparation for trial unexpectedly dredges up painful recollections of another crime—the night when her brother, AJ, saved his best friend at the cost of another man’s life. Only eighteen, AJ was cleared by a grand jury. Justice was done. Or was it? Did the events of 1980 happen as she remembers them? She was only a child then. What details didn’t she know?
As she plunges deeper into the past, Lu is forced to face a troubling reality. The legal system, the bedrock of her entire life, does not have all the answers. But what happens when she realizes that, for the first time, she doesn’t want to know the whole truth?”

The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

9780062060747_p0_v1_s260x420Through a long, convoluted maze, Reginald Hill leads the reader through decades of mystery and intrigue in his 2011 thriller The Woodcutter.  The prolific crime writer draws from his Cumbrian background in his tale of a young woodcutter’s son who defies his humble origins and wins the landowner’s daughter.  The book is targeted for discussion by one of my book clubs.

Wealthy, handsome, and knighted,  Sir Wilfred Hadda – known as Wolf from his wild boyhood days – is almost fatally injured when a bus stops him as he tries to escape arrest.  Miraculously recovering, minus an eye and a few fingers, Wolf faces the betrayal of friends and family and is jailed for crimes he did not commit, losing his wife, his daughter, his business, and his good name.

And the story begins.  Mirroring the “Count of Monte Cristo” book he prominently displays in his prison cell, Wolf plots his escape and his revenge.  Through interviews with a young prison psychiatrist, Alva Ozigbo (called Elf), Wolf reveals his background, his pursuit of Imogene – the love of his life, and his successes.  Recognizing that the truth will not set him free, Wolf reverts to deceiving the doctor – convincing her that he is repentant and admitting to crimes he never actually committed.  Gaining an early release from prison on the doctor’s recommendation, he returns to his roots in the woods and plots the destruction of his betrayers.  When Wolf’s traitorous friends begin to die, Hill inserts enough ambiguity to make the reader wonder about Wolf’s innocence.

The story is constantly shifting perspectives and timeframes, and can be hard to follow in the beginning.   Eventually, the plot gains a rhythm of pursuit, sprinkled with murders and lies driving the theme of vengeance.  Russian drug dealers, international spy rings, and shady finances add to the mystery of Wolf.   Supporting characters follow models of movie villains and spymasters, but no one is who they seem.

If you can manage to get past the first confusing chapters and have the stamina for a marathon read,  you will be rewarded with a fast-moving and intriguing mystery from a master of the genre.

Related Article on the Author Reginald Hill (Crime writer best known for his novels about the detectives Dalziel and Pascoe):         Reginald Hill

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First Day of the Rest of My Life

G.Y.L.T. B.I.T.L. (get your life together before it’s too late) might be one of the acronyms Madeline O’Shea uses with her clients as their life coach, but she finds it hard to follow her own advice.  Cathy Lamb’s The First Day of the Rest of My Life may sound like a fluffy narrative, but Lamb likes to let you get comfortable enjoying the quirky characters, and then wallop you with their terrifying secrets.

The O’Shea girls, Madeleine and Annie, have survived a horrific childhood with their abusive stepfather, to become privately dysfunctional but publicly normal. Annie is a vet, with military training in explosives, which she uses to rectify animal abuse; Madeleine is a popular motivational speaker and successful counselor, with a penchant for using her mother’s clichéd advice on her clients. A blackmail letter with pornographic pictures from their past threatens to reveal their terrible childhood abuse, and a reporter has uncovered new information not only about their childhood but also about the grandparents who raised them. Madeleine’s grandmother, a famous children’s author and illustrator, suffers from dementia; her ramblings hint at escape from Nazi Europe, with her picture stories of black swans a metaphor for wartime terrors that she has kept secret from her grandchildren.

Lamb offers some comic relief to the awful descriptions of child abuse, the vengeful courtroom scene, the assorted health attacks on the family – cancer, brain tumor, dementia, heart attack – with scenes from their mother’s pink lady beauty salon and exaggerated depictions of Madeleine’s clients, who throw glitter at her and dress her up in a Cats costume as part of their therapy. Madeleine’s advice is tough love, with blatant attacks on mostly women’s inability to stand up for themselves. Her magazine articles offer solutions, giving Lamb the opportunity to speak from her soapbox about society’s ills.

But be prepared to invest in some tissues, tears, gasps, and sighs. Before the predictable happy ending, the story vacillates between outright misery and familial loyalties. In a heavy-handed portrayal of emotions and history, Lamb focuses on two unbearable topics – child pornography and the Holocaust – one might have been enough.

The Snowman

 Although I live in a climate where no snowman could survive – unless he were made of shave ice – Jo Nesbø’s  tale of a serial killer in The Snowman is so real, I keep looking for one to pop up.

Harry Hole, the Norwegian police detective, has a mold problem in his apartment, and I’m wondering if this has anything to do with the cold-blooded murderer he is tracking. Of course, the killer has sent him a note too – a clue that will lead to the Snowman.

With his intrepid team, Harry pursues the killer, as more body parts – and snowmen – appear in the cold Norwegian landscape at each new snowfall; one shows up in a freezer; another on an ice rink. The deadly pursuit keeps going, and sometimes it’s hard to keep all the victims and suspects straight.  One of my favorite characters is Tresko- the poker-player with the terrible foot odor – fis (literally means toe fish, but Harry Hole calls it toe-fart), who spots the liar’s “tells” by observing the potential killer on TV.

“What separates the best from the rest is the ability to read others.”

Every time I think it’s over, it’s not, and the story has another exciting twist.  The killer is evil with a vendetta  – and the suspense is killing me.

Although this tale is from Norway, the gruesome details resemble Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, but  Harry Hole has been around in Jo Nesbø’s fiction since 1997.  This was my first encounter with the Oslo investigator, but five others preceded The Snowman – with the next in this exciting series already translated and ready for release – The Leopard.