Adam Woog rounds up new crime fiction for May: Michael Harvey’s “The Governor’s Wife,” Joyce Carol Oates’ “Jack of Spades” and Colin Cotterill’s new Laos-set mystery.
Leading off this month’s crime-fiction selection is a private-eye tale with echoes of a real-life scandal.
Michael Harvey’s “The Governor’s Wife”(Knopf, 256 pp., $24.95) is an absorbing example of a classic genre: the old-school detective story. Like any red-blooded private eye of that persuasion, Chicago gumshoe Michael Kelly is a loner with a quirk; in this case, he relaxes by reading classical Greek literature.
Kelly is idling in his office when he gets a strange email: a request to track down Illinois’ former governor, who disappeared after being convicted of corruption and bribery.
Shades of Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois governor convicted of similar charges. (Writers often dislike being asked where they get their ideas, but this one’s a slam-dunk. In fact, it’s surprising that the brash Blagojevich hasn’t inspired more fiction.)
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The email is anonymous, and Kelly is tempted to ignore it — except for the $200,000 fee.
His investigation leads Kelly to the ex-governor’s icy wife, Marie, bitter after being abandoned and disgraced, and her shady construction-mogul father.
As the detective discovers, Marie has some intriguing corners in her life. I would like to have seen flashbacks revealing more of the governor’s personality and actions, but Marie is plenty interesting on her own.
In any case, Harvey skillfully turns his chronicle of large-scale, faceless corruption into a personal and often heartbreaking story.
Joyce Carol Oates’ fascination with the mind’s creepier corners is amply demonstrated in “Jack of Spades” (Mysterious Press, 240 pp., $24). It’s the distinguished novelist’s latest example of disturbing but compelling psychological suspense.
Oates is smooth — so smooth that readers barely notice how she tightens her silken noose of a plot around their throats.
Andrew Rush is a successful mystery writer — and a spectacularly unreliable narrator. Rush has a secret: under the name Jack of Spades, he writes shocking, violent, explicitly sexual thrillers. He keeps copies of these books in a hidden closet in his basement, determined to hide them from his family.
Then two events threaten his concealed second life. His daughter innocently reads a Jack of Spades book and grows dangerously curious. Meanwhile, a bizarre woman sues him, claiming that he steals her ideas. (Literally, by breaking into her house to pilfer manuscripts. She thinks Stephen King does, too.)
Things spin out of control as Rush tries to fend off the legal assault and keep his alter ego hidden — even as that alter ego seems to be assuming control of his mind.
Dr. Siri Paiboun, the retired national coroner of Laos, takes center place in Colin Cotterill’s always delightful series, the latest being “Six and a Half Deadly Sins”(Soho, 256 pp., $26.95).
The Siri books are set in the early 1970s, when the country suffered deep deprivation and terror under the Pathet Lao government. And yet the doctor and his profoundly eccentric friends, wife and (now former) colleagues retain their sardonic senses of humor in a vexing and sometimes scary time.
Here, someone delivers a bizarre package to Siri and his disabled, spirited (and randy) wife: a sin, a beautiful skirt woven in a distinctive style found only in Laos’ north.
A nice enough gift, except for the human finger sewn into the lining.
The understandably startled Siri recognizes it as the first piece in a puzzle. Accompanied by a motley entourage, he sets off in search of answers — despite the looming threat posed by an aggressive Chinese army unit across the border. The solution takes the smart, intuitive doctor on a complex scavenger hunt, and at the same time he helps solve a brutal double murder in the region.