Crime & Mystery
In Cherie Priest’s new novel, “Grave Reservations,” a travel agent with spotty psychic powers helps solve a double murder.
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Some of my favorite crime novels juxtapose individual murders against the backdrop of wartime mass carnage. This is tough to pull off; it takes a skilled writer to keep the horror of such crimes vivid and stark when they’re surrounded by so much other death. In FIVE DECEMBERS (Hard Case Crime, 425 pp., $29.99), James Kestrel, a pseudonym for the horror and suspense novelist Jonathan Moore, does this very, very well.
He begins his epic in late November 1941, when the Honolulu police detective Joe McGrady stumbles on a vivisected body. “The dead man hung from the rafters, his ankles impaled on either side of an iron spreader bar. There was no question but that he was dead. He’d been split nearly in half, and most of his guts were on the dirt floor.” The investigation soon grows fractious and increasingly political — and that’s before a bomb drops on Pearl Harbor, permanently altering the course of McGrady’s life.
War, imprisonment, torture, romance, foreign language and culture are all explored with genuine feeling. The novel has an almost operatic symmetry, and Kestrel turns a beautiful phrase, too. A standout line describes McGrady this way: “His contradictions were holding him together and tearing him to pieces.”
Tamron Hall is a television broadcast staple — a former “Today” show co-host with her own daily syndicated morning talk show — as well as a veteran crime journalist seen regularly on “Investigation: Discovery.” Becoming an author, as she does with AS THE WICKED WATCH (Morrow, 386 pp., $27.99), is a natural and well-trod brand extension. Unfortunately for Hall, brand extension is all it is.
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The ingredients for a strong crime novel are all here. Jordan Manning is an ambitious local television reporter in Chicago (as Hall was) devoted to the plight of Black women and girls who have been neglected, abused and discarded. Her specific focus is on 15-year-old Masey James, who is missing, later discovered murdered and painted in the worst possible light by the police and other media.
Manning investigates with pluck and smarts, but the narrative is littered with expository potholes as well as clunky paragraphs and sentences (“The place where peace resides in my soul cried out, ‘Oh no!’”). This may be because Hall’s bylined co-writer, T. Shawn Taylor, has no known experience with crime fiction. The next Jordan Manning novel would benefit from a partnership between Hall and a writer better versed in the mechanics of the genre.
Philippa Watson and Judy Peabody, the nervy teenage duo at the center of John Copenhaver’s delicious trilogy opener THE SAVAGE KIND (Pegasus Crime, 371 pp., $25.95), each bring loneliness to a friendship that burns with intensity from the get-go. Philippa owes hers to a peripatetic upbringing and the loss of her mother. Judy was adopted into a privileged family as a replacement for their murdered daughter.
The girls, both outcasts, meet in the school cafeteria in September 1948 after a classmate points out Judy to Philippa, telling her, “Judy Peabody. The one with the bangs. She drops bricks on cats. Kills them for fun.” Their fascination — or is it obsession? — with each other, and with crime, begins after the death of a fellow student and the disappearance of a beloved pulp-fiction-loving teacher.
To expose the darkness and rot beneath his tale, Copenhaver peppers it with literary allusions — Greek tragedy abounds, as do allusions to “Wuthering Heights,” classic poetry and contemporary detective fiction. But this 1940s noir homage would not succeed if it weren’t for Judy and Philippa’s chemistry, which promises to deepen — and perhaps combust — over two more books.
After years in the fantasy and horror genre trenches, Cherie Priest decided she needed to immerse herself in lighter fare. The result is the delightful GRAVE RESERVATIONS (Atria, 289 pp., $26), the first in what I hope is a new series featuring Leda Foley, a travel agent at Foley’s Far-Fetched Flights of Fancy, whose spotty psychic powers help her to solve crimes.
That Leda ventures into amateur sleuth territory is the result of serendipity, specifically her impulsive last-minute decision to rebook a client on a different flight. When the original plane goes down in flames on the tarmac, that client, the Seattle police detective Grady Merritt, demands some answers.
“I changed your flight because I did know something was wrong — but I swear to you, I didn’t know what it was,” she tells him. “I might’ve been vibing off the cosmic certainty of the plane crashing.” Merritt is savvy enough to realize Leda’s abilities could be useful (off the books, natch) for a double-murder investigation that is proving nettlesome, especially when it links to a tragedy in Leda’s past.
The key pleasure in “Grave Reservations” is Leda’s company, whether she’s hanging out with her best friend Niki or giving “klairvoyant karaoke” performances at a local bar. Priest layers the humor and camaraderie with unexpectedly moving scenes of Leda haunted by old grief. As she discovers, the line between what’s lost and what can’t be sensed by others turns out to be gossamer-thin.
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