Desert Star (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2022
When an author has produced as many mysteries as Michael Connelly has, it’s a pleasure to be able to report that his
37th is a good read, even if it may not be quite up to the level of some of his best books.
This time, Mr. Connelly has cleverly found a way to combine the efforts of two of the stars of his other books: Harry Bosch
and Renée Ballard. The Los Angeles Police Department has given Ballard the job of heading up a team, previously disbanded,
that will look into unsolved cases. A city council member persuaded the LA PD to set up such a team once again; he wants them
to look into the unsolved case of his sister who was raped and murdered in her bedroom some years ago. Bosch was thinking
his sleuthing days were behind him but Ballard persuades him to join the team by offering this carrot: while helping with
the case of the councillor’s sister, he’ll also be able to take another stab at an unsolved case that was bothering
him when he retired. A family of four – two kids and their parents – had been murdered and their bodies buried
in the desert.
Formerly, Bosh was the higher-up, the veteran, and Ballard was the rookie. The reversed dynamics now make for some interesting
drama. It’s not always easy for her to reign in his independent streak and it’s not always easy for him to show
deference to her as the boss of the team.
At times, the prose can be a bit dull and functional – getting people from here to there, wrapping up meetings, making
arrangements and so on. For example: “Ballard started walking toward the aisle that led to the archive room entrance.
Bosch put the brochure and letter sleeve back on the binder rings, snapped them closed, and then followed her.” The
argument could be made that these details work like stage directions in a script for a film or a play, helping the viewer
(or reader) to feel the reality of the ordinary, humdrum actions. But the writing is nowhere near as exciting or entertaining
as in Mr. Connelly’s books about Mickey Haller, the brilliant defense attorney who is Bosch’s half brother. What
makes Desert Star well worth reading – like all of Mr. Connelly’s books – is his narrative skill, his genius
for spinning things out, for bringing in complications, for making every clue lead to another puzzle. In that sense, the book
is a classic police procedural.
It ends on a rather elegiac note, with personal material that is more touching than what you get usually at the end of a whodunnit.
But the sad note is offset by a reference to Mickey Haller with the hint that we’ll soon get a rip-snorter of a follow-up
The Other (Short Fiction) by Matthew Klam, The New Yorker, December 19, 2022
Twenty-four years ago, Matthew Klam was one of the young people that the New Yorker touted in a special edition on up-and-coming
writers. I haven’t heard much of him since then – which doesn’t mean that he hasn’t had a stellar
career – but here he is, narrating in the voice of a middle-aged dad, reflecting on the complications of family life
and neighbourhood relationships. This dad has two things on his mind: he’s baking a batch of cookies to take to a neighbourhood
Christmas party and he’s concerned about his teenage daughter who’s refusing to go to the party and who seems
to be planning some kind of skulduggery with her pals. It’s a marvellously realistic depiction of how a person can have
so many conflicting thoughts and feelings about things, especially about neighbours. There are the judgements about them,
the suspicions, the gossip, the rivalries and the resentments and yet there’s the friendliness, the camaraderie, the
support and the genuine sympathy. Life just as it is for all of us!
Nondisclosure Agreement (Short Fiction) by Said Sayrafiezadeh, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022
Our first-person narrator – who seems to be a nice, mild-mannered man – is telling us about a job he once had
inputting data for a mail-order catalogue. The narrator re-creates the feel of the office in minute detail: everything from
the feel of the carpet to the smell of the topiary shop downstairs. Nobody in the office is acknowledging that the mail-order
business is dying out. The narrator has hopes of being a writer and his boss seems to be encouraging him in this ambition;
in fact, the boss, who once had dreams of being a writer, gives a lot of attention to the young man’s writing. Everything
seems to be going well but the narrator can’t help feeling there’s something strange about the situation. Just
a slight hint in the first few sentences of the piece gives some idea of what might be brewing. This, then, is a superb example
of the kind of writing that says what it says by not saying it. But I can’t resist flagging one droll remark from the
narrator about a previous job working in an Amazon distribution centre. He’d be watching books come along the conveyor
belt, always hoping they’d be something interesting, “but almost always they were by James Patterson.”