Fresh crime fiction: Two seasoned journalists both have new thrillers this month that merge espionage and detective work with contemporary political intrigue — it’s a happy coincidence with terrific results.
Matthew Hart, who tracks the real-life diamond trade, writes about what he knows in his fiction debut, “The Russian Pink” (Pegasus, $25.95). A rich and controversial businessman looks like a lock to win the upcoming race for president. (Hmmm …) His glamorous wife is seen sporting a fabulously rare diamond, the Russian Pink, around her neck. The stone’s provenance, and how she came by it, lie in deeply murky territory.
Enter Alex Turner, ex-CIA and current U.S. Treasury Department agent. Turner’s job is to trace its sources, which requires help from a shady but charming double agent known as Slav Lily.
Bouncing from America to European diamond markets and African mines, the story — and Hart’s assured, no-nonsense prose — maintains a satisfyingly fast clip, with an equally satisfying dose of sardonic humor.
A more somber tale, Jeffrey Fleishman’s “Last Dance” (Blackstone, $25.99), opens with the apparent overdose in Los Angeles of Katrina Ivanovna, a famed Russian ballerina. Despite being past her prime as a dancer and dealing with serious drug abuse, she’d been hoping for a comeback.
LAPD detective Sam Carver suspects murder, but before an autopsy can be made, the dancer’s body is stolen from the city morgue. Carver is a complex, laconic, melancholy figure, and Fleishman — a veteran correspondent and the foreign and national editor at the Los Angeles Times — paints him in nuanced detail and lovely prose.
Equally well evoked is the city itself. We’re deep in Raymond Chandler territory here, a land of mean streets and tarnished heroes.
This evocative, reflective mood is balanced by more action-oriented espionage elements, which has Carver dealing with menacing KGB figures and Russian interference in U.S. elections. Not to mention his having to weather criticism of cops who misplace corpses, like this tweet from you-know-who: “LAPD can’t stop illegals, loses ballerina. SAD.”
Meanwhile, Seattleite Brian Selfon offers “The Nightworkers” (MCD, $27.99).
Selfon, an investigator with the King County Department of Public Defense, was formerly an investigative analyst for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. He sets this stunning debut in that borough — specifically the gritty bits, not its trendy neighborhoods.
Shecky Keenan, a two-bit but bighearted money launderer, is the center of a devoted, ad hoc “family” linked not by blood but by mutual respect and love. Its other figures are his surrogate children: Henry Vek, an artist who runs money for “Uncle Shecky,” and Kerasha Brown, a literate and brilliant thief out on probation.
This trio’s fragile balance is upset when a new courier, Henry’s friend, is killed — and the quarter-million in cash he was carrying disappears. Unsurprisingly, the very bad people who should have received it want Shecky to find it.
Selfon slowly unspools his plot in a nonlinear, convoluted fashion, with striking prose and with his damaged but compelling characters taking precedence over slam-bang action. Secondary plots (including Shecky’s memories of his squalid, violent childhood and Kerasha’s fixation with her creepy court-appointed psychiatrist), along with a crew of vivid secondary characters, further elevate this book to a high level.