The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

June 28, 2010

Still Missing The Last Good Kiss (Although) The Tears of Autumn (Bring a) Blood Harvest

I've just experienced one of those rare instances where every book I read turns out to be a winner. I started with Still Missing, the debut novel by Chevy Stevens. I shouldn't have to tell you anything about this book beyond the fact that it garnered starred reviews from each of the The Big Four: Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist.

The story concerns the abduction and subsequent captivity of Annie O'Sullivan, a real estate agent, and is told through first-person accounts by the victim to her psychiatrist. And if from that one sentence you think you know how the story goes, you don't. The book is not designed to titillate and the author never lingers creepily over specific acts of rape and violence. Instead the reader bears witness to Annie's pain of remembering and attempts at recovery. There is no Fatal Instinct-like denouement with the kidnapper returning to have one last go at Annie. There. I destroyed what you thought would happen, didn't I? No, if anything, the revelations that come once Annie is safely home again, and she unravels the motivations behind it all are just as shocking and just as painful as anything she had already survived. Still Missing is a beautifully written story, both horrifying and poignant. Chevy Stevens has bestseller stamped all over her future.

I always get sucked into reading novels that propose a solution, if one is needed, to the JFK assassination. I am of an age where that event is one of my cultural touchstones. Most of those novels though, if I am being honest, are big let-downs, bringing nothing new to the table and often being only an excuse for an over-the-top action tale filled with cardboard characters. That is so not the case with Charles McCarry's The Tears of Autumn. To get much into the plot is to give away McCarry's theory regarding the motive for the assassination so I won't go there. I will say that the author has a gift for bringing his Cold War-era characters to life. As much as I enjoyed the character of Paul Christopher, the CIA agent at the heart of the story, I enjoyed the character of Sybille Webster, the wife of another CIA man, just as much, even though she's more of an incidental character, albeit one of charm and wit and with her soul intact. And although Christopher logs a lot of frequent-flyer miles in his search for the truth, McCarry never lets his story slip into travelogue mode, even while presenting aspects of Vietnamese and certain African cultures of which I was unaware. Tip of the hat to the good guys at The Rap Sheet for pointing me toward this author, who was himself a CIA agent at one time. And there is a brand spanking new interview with Charles McCarry at The Morning News that makes for interesting reading.

S.J. Bolton's new book, Blood Harvest, conjured up memories of reading Tom Tryon's Harvest Home and Mary Stewart's Wildfire at Midnight, as all three books are gothic suspense with folklore playing a major role. Tryon's book is probably a more apt comparison as both Harvest Home and Blood Harvest involve rural farming communities and rituals regarding planting, harvesting, the seasons, etc. And, of course, murder.

When the Fletcher family, parents Gareth and Alice, sons Tom and Joe, and toddler Millie, build a new home in Heptonclough, odd things begin to happen. The children begin to hear voices, most unusual voices, and eventually ten-year-old Tom begins to believe his baby sister is in terrible danger. But his parents think he's becoming unhinged as does the psychiatrist they send him to. But when first Millie and then Joe are taken, a terrible history of children gone missing from the village begins to emerge and bodies literally come spilling out of their graves.

Tom and Joe are delightful but not overly precocious children, while a flirtation between the shy new vicar and the repressed psychiatrist permitted the author to move deftly between dry wit and heart-squeezing fear. While I thought the ending was a bit rushed and contrived, ultimately I found this eerie tale more satisfying and engaging, and rather less indulgent than the much hyped So Cold the River, by Michael Koryta.

Okay, I've saved the best for last, a crime classic called The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley. I've been meaning to read this book for some time and naturally I'm now wondering why I always have to drag my feet. Crumley's prose is an engrossing melange of good-ol'-boy wisdom, gritty noir, and smart-ass erudition. When it comes to similes and alcohol consumption, this book out-Chandlers Chandler, and it's got a pretty nifty missing-person case wedged in there, too.

Crumley's private investigator, C.W. Sughrue, doesn't do mean streets. He does mean roads, miles of'em. And Sughrue, unlike Chandler's decree of what a PI must be, is not strictly "a man who is not himself mean." Sughrue has moments of knight errantry offset by days of screw-you meanness. C.W. is a funny, dark, and smart character, and Crumley knows just where and when to place the knife in the reader's heart.

Even before reading this book I was well aware of its famous opening line:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
As memorable as that sentence is, it's only the start of a book that surely ranks as one of the very finest PI novels ever.


  1. I'm in one of those periods, too. Loving OUT at the moment.

  2. Thanks, Patti, I'll move this title toward the top of my list. I'd like to keep this roll going.

  3. Great post, Naomi. And isn't THE LAST GOOD KISS a good one! Thanks for this.

  4. Thanks, Michael, and yes, it is. It's a rare book that can match up to the reputation this one has earned.

  5. I just finished STILL MISSING over the weekend. Knocked my pants off. So creepy, so messed up but so well-written.

    You're lucky to be on such a roll. I encountered a couple turkeys recently I couldn't finish even with gravy on top.

  6. PCN, that's a good description of STILL MISSING. I just had to get over the part where the woman did not put up any resistance to being taken from the scene (the open house). Most women I know have been taught that, regardless of a kidnapper's weapon, you do all that is possible not to be taken from the scene.

    I know what you mean about the turkeys; I have a feeling my time with them is coming soon.

  7. The Last Good Kiss is the one I decided to order from this batch. It's in the mail. Thanks.

  8. I think you'll enjoy that book, Nigel. If I'd had to choose one of these for you, that would have been the one.

  9. last good kiss dropped through the post today. it has those really soft pages that almost sing when you flick them. it's next.