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Category Archive for 'Mystery, Thriller, Noir'

Dealing simultaneously with past and present, Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez appears at first to be a fairly straightforward and unpretentious murder mystery, but it is far more complex than it seems. It shifts back and forth over the course of twenty-seven years as one person who was present at the time of a murder returns to the town many years later to re-examine his memories and those of others in an effort to identify the guilty party. The murder takes place after a three-day wedding celebration, as Santiago Nasar prepares to go to the port, naively going out the back door while the two men who plan to kill him wait for him at the front. All this because the groom, Bayardo San Roman, has returned the “soiled” bride to her family on their wedding night, and Santiago is thought to be involved.

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In this finely written and often subtle literary thriller, debut author Sara Mesa focuses on an elite boarding school in rural northeast Spain. The school, Wybrany College, has been built in a man-made meadow on the road from Cardenas to the now defunct city of Vado. No signs along the road indicate any access to the property, and the school’s website does not provide an exact location for it. There are no photographs of the school or its grounds. Said to have been founded in 1943 by Andrzej Wybrany, a wealthy, exiled Polish businessman, who had been “moved by the fate of exiled orphans who had lost their parents,” the school was intended to educate and care for these orphans “with all the resources they would have enjoyed had the destinies of their families remained unaltered.” The reader soon discovers that nothing at the school is what the new teacher Isidro Bedragare expects, and the reader soon learns that even Isidro is not what the reader expects. Isidro has to admit that “my free time in the afternoon doesn’t compensate for the stress of every morning, the continual shifting between pretense and mockery, appearance and uncertainty,” with everyone speaking in code – both students and faculty. Gradually, the grim, hidden stories behind the school evolve, and as author Sara Mesa begins to show them in increasingly symbolic light, Isidro gets ready to take action.

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In his darkest and most “noir” novel yet, Massimo Carlotto continues his “Alligator” series, featuring Marco Buratti, a man haunted by the evil which consumes the society in which he tries to live. In touch with members of organized crime and its violence throughout Europe, he also understands crime on a local scale among the people he knows in his home of Padua, Italy. The local police department knows Buratti well for many reasons, and they sometimes ask him for help on their most challenging cases – some of which feature crimes within their own department and the implication that their request for help is something he must not refuse. With over thirty characters, some of them known by aliases, a complex plot which is developed in Padua, Bern, Vienna, and Munich, and two narrators giving conflicting information regarding crimes and responsibility, this is a challenging novel. The violence is fully described and sometimes shocking, and there are no people here who can be considered true heroes. Buratti occasionally gets twinges of conscience regarding deaths he has witnessed, but he is, he says, very aware of “the difference between justice and vengeance.” His own idea of justice “didn’t involve cops and courts,” especially when he and his parters were “playing multiple tables at a time.”

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Young Once, published originally in 1981, when Modiano was thirty-six, came as a huge and thrilling surprise to me, after I had already read eighteen of Modiano’s other autobiographical novels. Here, in what publisher New York Review Books describes as “his breakthrough novel,” Modiano “strips away the difficulties of his earlier work and finds a clear, mysteriously moving voice for his haunting stories of love, nostalgia, and grief.” The fact that main character Louis Memling, is twenty immediately captured my own attention because that is the one stage of author Modiano’s life which had been a total blank for me in his novels. Incomplete but ominous references to this period in Sleep of Memory, published in France in 2017, and which I had just read, added to a sense of mystery. Here two young people, Louis and Odile, are “adopted” by two older men who help them in their lives and offer them work but also take advantage of their naivete´. Soon they discover that they are being used for a criminal enterprise by their “friends.” One of Modiano’s very best.

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A novel written by James Sallis is always a cause for celebration, if you enjoy high-powered surprises and compressed and insightful writing representing several different genres of crime writing. In all his novels, Sallis’s characters must come to terms with a troubled past and grow beyond the difficulties and sometimes horrors which have dominated their inner lives to date. His people face life’s big questions on their own as they explore ideas of innocence and guilt, strength and weakness, and the past and its effects on the present and future within their own lives. Sarah Jane continues these same themes, but here Sallis becomes almost invisible. The novel is the journal of Sarah Jane Pullman from her childhood until she is well into middle age, and though the reader quickly gets to share her life, Sarah Jane steadfastly avoids dealing with problems which often feel much bigger to the reader than they do to her. She hints at events from the past but often prevents the reader from knowing more about the mysteries they create, which soon dominate most of the action – and, in fact, most of Sarah Jane’s life. Though it is presented as the journal of Sarah Jane – and it works as a disorganized journal filled with memories from changing time periods – author Sallis’s own presentation and organization of Sarah Jane’s issues are so effective, and the conclusion so filled with ironies, that many readers will gasp when they reach the ending.

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