Books

Four Crime Novels, Brimming With Venom and Dread

“In America, everything is about either race or money or some combination of the two.” So observes Easy Rawlins, the private detective of Walter Mosley’s key literary project over the past 30 years, making his 15th appearance in BLOOD GROVE (Mulholland, 307 pp., $27). Mosley’s work has chronicled an America rendered invisible, but also overpowered, by whiteness. Easy may be “a Black man closer to Mississippi midnight than its yellow moon” but he’s also a “father, a reader, a private detective and a veteran” who has evolved, and aged, a great deal since readers first met the 1948 version of him in “Devil in a Blue Dress.”

It’s 1969 now, and Rawlins is nearly 50, still struggling with professional and romantic and familial conflicts in a Los Angeles about to be beset by the berserk. He catches a strange-to-parse case: a young white man who thinks he might have killed a man during a vicious attack.

“I had to help him because I could see his pain in my mirror,” Easy decides, seeing past race and money to the shared post-traumatic bond of wartime service.

There will be regrets, and deaths, and special appearances from other recurring Mosley protagonists as Easy continues his journey through the country as it was, and is, rather than the stuff of myths and dreams.

Belinda Bauer’s thrillers are ingeniously plotted, propulsively paced and suffused with a keen intelligence and wit. So yes, I’m a fan, and EXIT (Atlantic Monthly Press, 325 pp., $26) is a welcome addition to this distinctive body of work.

Felix, at 75, has known loss, still mourning the deaths of his wife and child. He channels his grief through work as an “Exiteer,” sitting with the critically ill during their last moments as they prepare to end their lives.

But the latest assignment goes horrifically wrong — I gasped and thrilled at the twist, which I shan’t spoil here — forcing Felix to question everything, everyone, his internal moral compass and the motives of those around him. Bauer tucks these expansive questions into the folds of the plot, which grows sufficiently breakneck, featuring secret romances, organized crime and channeling death for profit. What lingers most, though, is Felix’s capacity for empathy, no matter the personal cost.

Our modern, housebound, locked-down era has transformed an often vexing question — “Why doesn’t this person I care about text me back?” — into the stuff of existential nightmares. Catie Disabato clearly worked on and completed most of U UP? (Melville House, 305 pp., paper, $17.99) before the pandemic, but the novel’s examination of loss, be it sudden death or friendship rupture, feels very much of this moment.

The main mystery can be boiled down to two interlinked questions: why Ezra has gone dark in Eve’s text streams after the final romantic fissure with his girlfriend (and Eve’s onetime close friend), Nozlee, and why Eve is able to communicate virtually — via text — with the ghost of their dead best friend Miggy, who killed himself the year before.

Both strands will be resolved not in the bustling, Before-Time Los Angeles where all four reside but in a hideaway nestled in the desert, where the living mingle with the afterlife, and where fractured threads will knit themselves anew in unexpected ways.

Disabato is after bigger thematic game than mere paranormal mystery-romantic comedy. The texts Eve sends and receives — and the ones she doesn’t — are the means for her to cope with and repress her grief at the compounding losses in her life, and the self-destructive behavior that ensues when medicating herself with alcohol and cocaine stops working. Rather than flatten emotion via text, Eve’s plaintive missives heighten her brokenness, injecting an aching pathos as she searches out her deepest self within the wreckage of the selves she has abandoned.

My No. 1 life rule is that you should never hire a hit man, because it’s certain to result in catastrophe. In FINLAY DONOVAN IS KILLING IT (Minotaur, 359 pp., $26.99), her first mystery for adults, Elle Cosimano takes this rule to heart. The plot is frequently outlandish, but the main character is so endearing that it’s easy to surrender to the ridiculous.

A freshly divorced, deeply indebted single mom, Finlay just wants to write romantic suspense novels and make a living at it, something that’s eluded her so far. A fraught conversation with her literary agent at a crowded suburban Panera is misunderstood in gargantuan fashion, and the next thing she knows, Finlay has a $50,000 assignment — in cash — to kill a stranger’s husband. A payday that’s more than 10 times her average book advance.

Things turn screwball, naturally, as if Craig Rice had rewritten “Home Sweet Homicide” with social media in mind. Finlay, poor decisions aside, has a promising future in killing for sort-of hire. Her books might garner more commercial success, too. After all, as her babysitter-turned-sidekick reasons, if landing an agent had 10,000-to-1 odds, and landing a book deal is tougher still, “Getting away with murder had to be easier than that, right?”

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