THE ALBUM OF DR. MOREAU by Daryl Gregory

The Album of Dr. Moreau
By Daryl Gregory
Tor.com — May 2021
ISBN: 9781947879331
— Paperback — 176 pp.


Have you long been searching for a short science fiction / murder mystery read, packed with humor and meta winks, featuring a Boy Band of eccentric, genetically-engineered, human-animal hybrids?

No?

Well, you should be now. Immediately.

It may surprise you, but I hadn’t either. Boy Bands were never my thing, and my musical tastes are not now – nor have they ever been – particularly mainstream. I also have never read The Island of Dr. Moreau. I watched the movie with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer back at its release, but don’t really remember any details of it. Or I’ve blocked them out. I know the gist of the story though, and could sing you Oingo Boingo’s “No Spill Blood”. That’s about it.

I am a fan of murder mysteries though. And science fiction. And I think I’ve enjoyed, if not loved, all the short fiction by Daryl Gregory that I’ve read over the years in magazines. So, though I was never looking for this book, and the premise didn’t sound that tempting, I gave it a try. I am so thankful that I did.

Gregory succeeds phenomenally well here with the mashup of classic mystery and classic science fiction riffs, tying it all together with a tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted noir tone (oxymoron intended) that pulls readers in to simply enjoy the ride. He play with every element, even the murder mystery one by breaking all five of T.S. Eliot’s rules for effective, proper detective fiction.

So, I should summarize the plot a bit before rambling on…

Las Vegas Detective Luce Delgado has the difficult task of solving the murder of Dr. M, the producer behind 2001’s hottest boy band, the WyldBoyZ. The five genetically-engineered members of this vocal group are Delgado’s prime suspects. She begins to interview each of them: Bobby the ocelot (the ‘cute’ one), Matt the megabat (the ‘funny’ one), Tim the pangolin (the ‘shy’ one), Devin the bonobo (the ‘romantic’ one), and Tusk the elephant (the ‘smart’ one). Through the band members and others involved in their entourage, Delgado (and the reader) learn of the egos, talents, foibles, fractures, and traumas that underlie the band’s history and success.

Gregory brings the characters alive, absurd as they are, to make the reader actually invested in them each, as if one were fans of the band. He makes the mystery plot engaging, paced perfectly to allow the reader to get to know all the suspects, revealing bits that can lead the reader to figure some likelihoods out, but still nailing the eventual culprit reveal. He pays homage to a classic, while also inventing the story in a fun, interesting way.

Through that all, Gregory lets his love of music shine, crafting a story that is equally faux documentary of a band’s history and personalities, like a literary This Is Spın̈al Tap. The humor is on-point, but never gets silly or infantile. It becomes grounded in the serious nature of the psychologies of the band members.

The critique of celebrity and themes surrounding the cost of fame, and the humanization of idols, is nothing new to The Album of Dr. Moreau. but mix that with the the themes of H.G. Wells novel in a murder mystery framework, and all the familiar elements that make up this novel remix into a glorious new beat and key of pure entertainment and fun. I’m not sure if these characters (or the universe) would work in a series that mashed up with additional science fiction classics. But I think it should be investigated. At the least, more stories in this style would be very welcome.


CHILDREN OF DEMETER by E.V. Knight

Children of Demeter
By E.V. Knight
Raw Dog Screaming Press — August 2021
ISBN: 9781947879331
— Paperback — 186 pp.


Sociologist Sarah Bisset needs her sabbatical not just for an academic recharge, but to find herself again following tragedy and betrayal. Her husband has died in a car accident, and with him in the vehicle was the mistress she didn’t know he had. She uses the insurance money to buy an infamous property in rural Wisconsin, a destination for her sabbatical research, but moreover an escape from her routine life and a home soured with memories of her duplicitous husband.

The purchased farmhouse and its lands are the former homestead of the Children of Demeter, a mysterious counterculture commune that led a seemingly peaceful hippie existence within the small community before disappearing overnight without trace or explanation in 1973. Partnering with a podcast that features stories of the unexplained (that is run by the son of her longtime friend) Sarah sets out to investigate the history of the agrarian hippie group and its enigmatic leader, interviewing longtime residents of the town and scope out the property, its lake, and the adjacent caves. Each bit of an answer they find only brings more questions.

Already confused by a personal relationship clouded in deception, Sarah begins to notice oddities around the house that begin to lead her to further question her identity, and her sanity. The secrets of the property and the twenty-five mostly women and children who once called it home come coupled with inexplicable oddities: signs of someone – or something – living in the basement, barren land where nothing will grow, a psychedelic mural depicting a strange creature coming from the lake, and a hostile neighbor who appears to want a dark past kept hidden.

I previously read and reviewed E.V. Knight’s The Fourth Whore from Raw Dog Screaming Press, a title that impressed me in its feminist themes and vibrant writing despite not being the genre of story that I’m particularly partial to. The plot of that novel necessitated a harsh, almost vitriolic tone and style, making a novel that while thought provoking and high quality, wasn’t ‘fun’ to read, or bewitching in that pleasurable way that some horror can do for me. Horror like a gothic ghost story. When I read the plot synopsis of Children of Demeter I knew this would probably be something I’d adore, a beloved sub-genre in the hands of an author who writes engagingly and who can place powerful feminist themes in an interesting light. Children of Demeter didn’t disappoint that expectation.

The mysteries of a possible haunting, the secrets of an old property and the uncertain nature of this cult of fertility and harvest make for a classically captivating gothic horror. Knight puts an interesting spin on this by tying it in with psychedelic hippie culture. At heart of the novel is not something of ghosts, monsters, or the true story of the cult’s past. It’s the nature of Sarah, her identity as a person, as a woman. It’s a psychological, or perhaps even a social, horror story, though those other paranormal elements do get their due, secrets become revealed. The journey toward that is just coupled to Sarah’s rocky path to self-rediscovery, both literal and metaphorical.

The only aspect of the novel that didn’t really work for me was the podcast angle. As a concept of the plot it works fine, the issue becomes Knight’s incorporation of the podcast dialogue into the novel. There is a cheesiness to the podcast presentation that takes away from the tone of the novel and Sarah’s point of view. It also ends up serving as a way to reveal information about the past quickly in the form of interviews. But, that doesn’t have as satisfying an effect on the reader than if these details were divulged in another format than a verbatim oral transcript.

Aside from these moments, the creepy slow build up and the ultimate climax of the novel play out pitch perfectly in a successful combination of mythology, classic horror, and modern themes. Knight has won the Bram Stoker award already for horror, but after reading this I feel as though she’d also have great things to contribute to the mystery/suspense genre. Children of Demeter could almost classify in that realm over horror. If mythology, mysterious cults and gothic tones are among your cherished elements of fiction, check this one out.


QUARRY’S BLOOD by Max Allan Collins

Quarry’s Blood
(Quarry Series #16)
(Hard Case Crime Series #151)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 22nd February 2022
ISBN: 9781789096682
— Paperback — 224 pp.


Quarry’s Blood is a quick and satisfying pulp read, with Collins infusing his latest novel with fresh blood (yes, bad pun groan) to invigorate the aging Quarry series. I first saw this title in the Hard Case Crime catalog and thought, oh dear, another Quarry novel? And then I was even more confused to see that it was set in 2021, well after the events of The Last Quarry, which had been meant as the chronologically final story of the former contract killer’s life. I read how HCC editor Charles Ardai talked Collins into writing this entry, read the novel, and then was very glad that Ardai succeeded.

If, perchance, you haven’t read a Quarry novel, or if you haven’t seen any of the brief Cinemax series based on the series, here’s the gist of the character. A Vietnam veteran trained as a sniper, the man later dubbed Quarry returned home after the war to find his wife had been cheating on him with another man. Quarry killed that man, but circumstances led to him legally getting off from the crime, and to be recruited as a hitman for a powerful ‘Broker’ with mob connections, a man in charge of delegating regional contract killings. The Broker names his talented new recruit “Quarry” for the man’s rock solid appearance and hollow emotional core, and Quarry quickly becomes one of his best hitmen. Until the Broker begins to worry about Quarry and betrays him. Quarry goes rogue and takes care of the problem, procuring a list of jobs in the process. Quarry begins to go to people on the hit list and offer his services to get rid of the contract killers after them, and then also to try and find out who ordered that hit and take them out too. As he ages, he eventually settles for one last job with a big payout; he ends up with retirement with a woman he loves.

In Quarry’s Blood, the former hitman is still living the quiet, retired life, mourning the recent loss of his wife to COVID, but continuing his daily routine as he approaches seventy years old. This calm routine changes when a true crime writer, Susan Breedlove, arrives knocking at his door with questions. Susan has written a best-selling book that investigated and exposed many events from Quarry’s past, including what occurred with the Broker, and she is looking to write more, with more details and the hope of cooperation from Quarry, the man she knows far more about than anyone should. Even more disturbingly, soon after her visit, a contract killer and his backup make an attempt on Quarry’s life. It’s reasonable to Quarry to assume these two events are connected.

There are two things to the aptly titled Quarry’s Blood that make it succeed in terms of its plot. First, it is now a case where Quarry is the contract. He has to both protect himself from being killed, while also investigating to try and figure out who would want him dead and how it relates to Susan’s book/research. And, though he is in remarkable shape for his age, he is certainly not in top form for the kind of exertion that investigation might entail. Second, is the character of Susan: who she is and how that relates to Quarry and his past. The person who put out the hit on Quarry, and their secret reasons for doing so also pull from the core of Quarry’s past and nicely parallel his relation to Susan.

It probably wouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to be more detailed, but I’m going to opt for keeping it all a surprise. The novel begins with three chapters set in the 1980’s, so that by the time we get to the present and Susan arrives, things should already be clear to readers. Thankfully Collins doesn’t take too long to dance around things either, leaving the real mystery of the novel to who is targeting Quarry – and even moreover why.

Collins’ writing is exactly what one would expect from this master of neo-pulp. The text and dialogue flow crisply, with bits of playful trashiness one would expect from the genre. The novel is also preceded by some quotations, one of which is a definition for ‘meta’. Indeed, there are many self-referential nods in Quarry’s Blood, including mention of the TV series and the idea that Quarry himself writes the pulp Quarry series that everyone thinks is fiction.

Collins clearly has fun writing this unexpected chapter in Quarry’s story, and he succeeds in making it unique enough from previous entries to warrant its telling. Susan is an impressive addition to the series, and I could see things continuing in spin-off series featuring her. In fact, I hope Ardai pushes strongly for that.


FIVE DECEMBERS by James Kestrel

Five Decembers
(Hard Case Crime Series #150)
By James Kestrel
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9781789096118
— Hardcover — 432 pp.


This is perhaps the best Hard Case Crime novel I’ve yet read, and it is among the best novels in general that I’ve read in the past year. I don’t seem to be alone in this assessment, as the Mystery Writers of America just announced Five Decembers as the winner of the 2022 Edgar Award for best novel a few days ago. James Kestrel is a pseudonym for Jonathan Moore, whose previous novels are now going onto my to-read list with that priority of engaged excitement. Here’s why you might enjoy this novel as well, even if you are not a regular reader of the Hard Case Crime imprint.

Five Decembers opens with a set-up of plot and atmosphere that smolders with a familiar intensity of pulpish noir suspense. Former Army officer Joe McGrady now works as a Honolulu city police detective, perceptive and dedicated, though resented and unappreciated by many of his colleagues, particularly his boss. But, as Europe and the rest of the world beyond begin to churn into global conflict, he lives content on the island with his job and a woman he loves.

The trajectory of Joe’s life change when he is assigned a gruesome double homicide that ends up having links to the family of the Admiral who heads the Naval base at Pearl Harbor, and to Japan. After a shootout near the scene of the murder with one of the killers, McGrady ends up on the trail of a professional killer across the Pacific, eventually reaching British Hong Kong. The chaos of World War II and an attack by Japan on Hong Kong make tracking a dangerous killer the least of McGrady’s worries, as his investigation and pursuit quickly turn into becoming a prisoner of war.

The adventure of Five Decembers stretches across five years (hence the title), in an epic story that combines elements of crime fiction, historical war drama, romance, and conventional literary explorations of cross-cultural contact. Clandestinely freed from execution within a Japanese prisoner camp by one of his captors, Joe McGrady must spend most of the war in hiding within a Japanese home. The war’s end finally gives him the freedom to leave and resume the hunt for the killer that began his journey. But how have the secluded years living with a Japanese family changed him, and what is left for him to return to?

Five Decembers starts as hard boiled crime, and eventually returns to it. But the majority of it serves as something much more profound and heartbreaking, yet just as entertaining, just as fluid with dialogue that pops and grittiness that touches the soul. Even in the moments of the novel without ‘crime’ and the mystery plot, the tone of the novel stays consistent with the genre.

The hard boiled or film noir style is largely defined by the cynicism in its characters, brought on by cycles of violence and despair. Bright rays of hope that appear, and dreams of a happy future, become clouded over by gruesome reality. War does this as well, as it overturns the lives of ordinary people, people who may even be the enemy, but who are at their heart still good. Systems destroy even the good, particularly the good.

McGrady finds himself prisoner to a life he never intended, could not have chosen. Yet somehow it becomes a life of beauty and tranquil peace. Of happiness. Just as the outbreak of war causes chaos and disruption, so too does the end of these conflicts, as others coming into power and enemies are not just defeated, but also punished. The end of war is not a new peace. It’s a return to the same cycles of violence, with different players and stages. McGrady’s life is again disrupted and he’s forced to again find his place in the world.

Five Decembers is a cinematic novel, one that I could easily seen adapted into a movie that was on one hand action/suspense, but also art house, using the familiarity and entertainment of genre conventions to probe the human condition in one common man across a swath of time. It’s a complex novel that I would enjoy reading again, and I believe that a lot of people across reading interests would find rewarding.


LATER by Stephen King

Later
(Hard Case Crime Series #147)
By Stephen King
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — March 2021
ISBN: 9781789096491
— Paperback — 248 pp.


Does Stephen King need his new novels covered or advertised by book reviews? Probably not. Are there potential readers out there who are undecided if his writing is something they’d be interested in? Probably few. But then again, there’s likely a fair number of people out there who’ve read something by King, and would read another, just not anything. Some may have read another Hard Case Crime by him and been disappointed, and now are hesitant to go for another. So, a review still seems worthwhile to me, and hopefully will be beneficial for some.

Though he’s written three novels for the Hard Case Crime label, this is the first of them that I’ve read. From what I’ve gathered, there weren’t many big fans of the first one, The Colorado Kid. The second, Joyland, fared with better word of mouth. In my opinion, King’s newest, Later, stands as a great success: a quick, entertaining read that should appeal to King and Hard Case Crime fans alike.

As a young boy, Jamie realizes that he can see people that no others can. He sees dead people. (Though as he points out to readers, not quite like the boy in that famous M. Night Shyamalan picture.) Jamie can see and talk to the recently deceased, but only for a short period of days before their voices and form dissipate and move on to whatever comes later for these souls. During their brief existence as a remnant these ghosts seem -usually – more emotionally detached from that which interested them before. But Jamie discovers that if he poses these ghosts questions, they are compelled to respond with the truth alone. This remains inexplicable to Jamie (and convenient for the plot, though I don’t complain too strongly over that.). But this fact makes Jamie’s ability potentially very useful to someone who might want to get secrets that people attempt to take with them to the grave.

Jamie’s mother struggles to stay financially afloat as a single parent in New York City through turbulent years in her profession as a literary agent/editor. As she tries to raise Jamie and come to terms with his abilities, she also tries to keep her fastidious and eccentric writer clients appeased and productive (profitable for her as well.) Aside from Jamie and her professional client relationships, she has a NYPD cop girlfriend who is a big fan of her most famous client. The problem is, her girlfriend is also a crooked cop, looking to profit off drug distribution.

As Jamie grows up he begins to appreciate just who his mother’s ‘good friend’ Liz actually is, and feels increasing responsibility to support his mother as she has so long supported him. He also gets to know his ability and overcome the trauma of seeing ghosts of people who have just died in terrible disfiguring accidents. But, Liz’s illegal activities and a serial bomber who is terrorizing the city are about to make Jamie’s supernatural talents into a greater vulnerability than he’s experienced or appreciated.

At various points in the book Jamie reminds readers that this is a horror story. As is typical for King (and lots of the horror genre in general) the worst monsters in Later are the humans, not the supernatural boogies. Jamie wants to be normal, unencumbered by the difficulty of looking at dead people. However as the first years pass from his youngest memories, his supernatural ability becomes something completely mundane. Most of the dead people look indistinguishable from those alive. The rare grotesque cases born from a violent demise get somewhat easier to deal with as Jamie knows what to expect and can prepare himself. He has even faced the threat of an evil demonic force and come out on top. The real danger of his abilities lie in how others will exploit him.

His mother understands this when she first realizes the reality of his abilities, and quickly teaches him to conceal his talents from all but herself, until she opens the ‘circle of trust’ up to include her girlfriend Liz, a woman of far greater moral weakness and desperation. Liz’s takes the King character role of the severely flawed person who makes the protagonist’s bad situation go too far, far worse. She also takes what works well as a horror novel and puts a justice/crime spin to it through a plot that reads familiar in the noir pages of Hard Case Crime. Some readers may feel that this horror/crime hybrid has a plot that really unfurls too late, at ~ three quarters of the way in. I didn’t mind one bit, because leading up to all of that hybrid action were pages and pages of great characterization.

It’s no secret that King writes children characters really well, particularly capturing that adolescent age of males going into their teens. With the voice of Jamie, King sticks with what works well. I did not want to put the novel down at any moment, I just wanted to keep learning about what Jamie would do with his ability – or how he would be used; what he would discover about himself; how his small family of he and his mother would make it out of the challenges that faced them. Just as King sticks in his wheelhouse with Jamie, he likewise stays with the familiar with the occupation of Jamie’s literary agent/editor mother. Being a lover of books and the publishing industry myself, I enjoyed this aspect and its nice references, particularly a sample NYT Dwight Garner review that made me emit a loud ‘hah!”

Other secondary characters King pens equally strongly. The elderly professor neighbor was another favorite of mine, most particularly for the role the amiable man plays in preparing Jamie for facing a particularly malevolent spirit of a serial bomber/killer. It may not have been King’s intention, but the scenes of this subject and interactions between the professor and the young boy reminded me of the beloved gothic plots and characters of John Bellairs: Professor Childermass and Johnny Dixon. In many regards the novel ended up taking on the flavor of a Bellairs YA novel – just with more foul language and drugs involved. Going along with these associations, the novel also references/plays with the classic ghost story “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M.R. James. James was a major influence on Bellairs, so even if King is just directly alluding to James with Later, he equally indirectly alludes to Bellairs.

If you have liked things by King, and like classic ghost stories, this should be quick and enjoyable read. Likewise, if you’re just a fan of the general Hard Case Crime label noir, there is enough intersection with the classic motifs of that genre (crooked cops, drug running, monstrous crime bosses with perverse sexual proclivities, etc) to make it familiar and sate the appetite.

From page one Jamie – and I guess King – makes note of the frequent use of the title word ‘later’. I kind of hope that we will see more of Jamie later in future books. The character and tone just work too well to be finished with. Later on one day I may whistle for that, and see what comes.


SKIM DEEP by Max Allan Collins

Skim Deep
(Frank Nolan Series #9; Hard Case Crime Series #146)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime — December 2020
ISBN: 9781789091397
— Paperback — 256 pp.


I’ve been a fan of the Hard Case Crime series for awhile now, and like the media-tie-in series that I follow, I’ve been trying to keep up with reading each of the new releases under its banner. On occasion there is one that I really don’t care for, but the majority I find wonderfully entertaining, in that light reading kind of way. They span a variety of the mystery/crime/thriller genre with both classic reprints, new additions to series, and completely new creations from modern-day noir writers. They all have that tinge of noir pulp that I adore, even when it comes across as dated.

Shamus-award winning and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Max Allan Collins is probably a name familiar to anyone who reads the genre. Some bit of his prolific output in prose and graphic novels is likely familiar to an even broader swatch of the pop culture population. His Road to Perdition comic series was made into a film with Tom Hanks, and his Quarry novel series more recently appeared as a Cinemax TV series. I’ve read most all – if not all – of the Quarry novels from Hard Case Crime, and reviewed one here awhile back. I remember enjoying these to varying degrees, so the news of a new Collins novel was something to celebrate and anticipate.

Now, I’m less familiar with Collins’ Nolan series, featuring the Lee van Cleef lookalike professional thief Frank Nolan. I may have read Two for the Money, put out by Hard Case Crime in its early days (#5), but it’s too long to remember. The good thing is, it doesn’t really matter if you know anything about Nolan. or if you have read any of the previous eight books featuring him, to enjoy Skim Deep. At this stage the thief has gone straight, running a restaurant/nightclub in the midwest with his lover Sherry, a former showgirl. He’s made peace with mafia powers that he formerly clashed with, and has been allowed to step aside to settle into a civilian’s life away from crime. Deciding to take things one step further and marry Sherry, the couple leaves on a whim for a Vegas ceremony. There they stay at the French Quarter Hotel (a thinly veiled Orleans), where Nolan’s friend and former accomplice Jon now works, also having gone straight, in the dreams of opening his own comic shop. Unfortunately, Nolan’s former reputation gains unsolicited notice from some in Vegas, including an acquaintance who decides to use Nolan’s surprise appearance to further his own criminal plans. In the meantime, the matriarch of a criminal family sets her youngest son with a mission to kill Nolan and bring her his head, in retribution for Nolan’s prior role in her eldest son’s death. Even if Nolan and Sherry manage to make it out of Vegas alive, an assassin awaits the new husband and wife at their doorway.

Skim Deep suffers most from the execution of its plot. The set up is a good one, but it proceeds predictably. This might not be a real terrible thing for this kind of pulp read, if the plot could have included more twists toward those predictable conclusions, or if the antagonists of the novel showed any modicum of competence as threats to Nolan, Sherry, or Jon. Two separate threats emerge in the novel against Nolan, but the perpetrators of each are almost comically inept. They also both are unwilling antagonists, acting not out of any particular dislike of Nolan, but feeling forced into the situation for want of money – and ultimately for want of keeping a hot wife. The stakes never seem particularly high for the ‘good guys’ of the novel, and each threat becomes dispatched with little fanfare. Sherry does serve a role in the novel, albeit with dated pulp tones of misogyny (e.g. honor and obey the husband); she’s a cheerleader and emotional support for Nolan as well as representation of the one thing he loves, a person who only chose to be associated with crime indirectly through a relationship with him. On the other hand, Jon seems largely dispensable to what occurs in the novel. I gather he is a larger part of previous novels in the series, serving as a young, nerdy and loyal foil to the classic principled and noble tough guy that is Nolan. There’s unfortunately little in Skim Deep featuring that, or to give Jon purpose and import in events.

Despite these flaws, Skim Deep works with the simple fact that Collins can write. The noir tone and Nolan’s personality shine in the dialogue and descriptions from the former thief’s point of view. Further, even if the survival of the hero is certain or they never really feel in danger, the story still flows in the enjoyment of the righteous justice against those who dared think they could hurt the noble Nolan or the innocent Sherry.

Like any criminal protagonist that writers ask audiences to get behind (your Boba Fetts), Nolan may be a thief, but he has a code of honor and respect. He is not evil, nor does he compromise on principals to take the easier path or gain reward. The antagonists of Skim Deep may not be evil either, but they have weak resolves and lack self confidence. They fear losing things they don’t think they necessarily even deserved in the first place. They don’t want to accept what might come, and they will hurt others to selfishly benefit. Nolan may not deserve Sherry. But he knows that he has her love and respect. And she knows she has the same from him. If he did something of his own fault to change that, he would not destroy more lives for his shortcomings. The contrast between these character traits between the protagonists and antagonists is at least interesting in Skim Deep, even if it does then contribute to the sheer lack of potency in those villains as credible threats.

After all this I feel kind of silly trying to analyze the novel. Even with shortcomings, it is a fine entertaining crime read, exactly what I’m looking for when I crack open a Hard Case Crime, and as usual Collins makes even the predictable fun. If you are already a Collins or Hard Case Crime fan, you’re sure to love this too. Fans of the genre who don’t know Collins or the Nolan novels would still find this worth checking out. The opportunity to discover more of the Nolan novels is also coming soon, as Hard Case Crime will be rereleasing the earlier books in the series in the coming month; you could always wait to start with those too. I’m intrigued to meet the Nolan of his more wild days that brought him here to Skim Deep.


THE HUNT FOR FOXP5: A GENOMIC MYSTERY NOVEL by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer

The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel
By Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer
Springer Publishing — May 2016
ISBN: 9783319289601
— Paperback — 251 pp.


Writing balanced science fiction can be a real challenge, particularly if an author is trying to keep the science 100% accurate and the speculation 100% plausible. At least, it’s hard for me to find ‘hard SF’ that I enjoy. Some may be fine with a work from the sub-genre even if it has little literary merit going for it, or a lack of thematic depth beyond the scientific concepts. The science alone isn’t entertaining and interesting enough for me – especially when it is the fields of science that seem to dominate that label ‘hard’: technology, physics, and astronomy.

“Hard” SF featuring biology definitely exists, though it is more rare, I feel, to find stories where the amount of biological science/speculation in the story equals other elements like plot and character. When I have seen it (for example with Peter Watts) I still don’t end up enjoying the work as much as other books that put less emphasis on the science. I guess I just always want more of the literary or entertainment than the science fact and education in my fiction.

I still look for potential reads in the sub-genre though, especially when it falls in my field of biology, and I was intrigued when I found biology-related titles in the “Science and Fiction” series from Springer, which publishes novels written by scientists about their field. One of these, The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer turned out to be one of the most successful merging of science and fiction that I’ve read, a story that could easily have been serialized to acclaim in Analog Magazine. The creation of the novel comes through the combination of Kaufman (a writer and translator) and Deamer (a research professor in Biomolecular Engineering at UC Santa Cruz)

After the mysterious death of her husband, genetics researcher Dr. Michelle Murphy is left to raise her adoptive daughter Avalon, a brilliant eight-year-old they had adopted from Kazakhstan. Dr. Murphy receives an invitation from a prestigious Kazakh scientist Dr. Akenov to attend and present her research at a genetics conference in Kazakhstan, and invites her to bring along her adoptive daughter as an opportunity for Avalon to learn more about her proud homeland, so unlike what the film Borat portrays. Dr. Murphy’s skepticism regarding the timing and motivation of the invitation become confirmed with a visit from the CIA. They inform Dr. Murphy that Dr. Akenov is on their radar as potentially being involved in the development of a biological weapon. While they warn Dr. Murphy and express fear for both her safety and Avalon’s, they also hope that Dr. Murphy’s attendance to the conference will give them an opportunity to use her as an information-gathering spy.

Agreeing, and still taking Avalon with despite the risks, Dr. Murphy and her daughter arrive in Kazakhstan. There, they gradually unravel links between Dr. Murphy’s research into the FOX family of genes, the death of her husband, Avalon’s heritage, and Akenov’s plans. The story combines anthropology, biology, politics, and national identity into what could be best called a scientific thriller, despite the use of the term ‘mystery’ in the novel’s subtitle.

The FOXP5 of the title refers to a fictional allele (flavor of gene) in the very real family of FOX genes. The FOX family of genes encode proteins that bind to DNA and act as transcription factors, that is to say they regulate when and how genes are expressed. First discovered and researched in the model fruit fly organism (Drosophila), these genes are conserved throughout vertebrates, including humans. One member of the family, FOXP2, is responsible in bird species for controlling the development of call mimicry, and in humans that same gene plays a role in the development of speech and language. As I understand it, scientists believe that mutations in FOXP2 may have contributed to the evolution of modern H. sapiens from ancestral populations through additional abilities of language, and thereby culture, that these mutant alleles permitted. The Hunt for FOXP5 speculates additional FOX mutant alleles occurring and what the implications of that could be if selected for in the human population. A section in the back of the book following the story highlights the science behind the fiction of this novel, presumably primarily by Deamer.

Some might find it surprising that Dr. Murphy agrees to go to the conference despite the dangers admitted by the CIA. Even moreover, how could she possibly also still take her daughter? I actually didn’t find this too implausible. Scientists can be stubborn, and everything about Dr. Murphy and Avalon point to them as not backing away from threats, responsibilities, or opportunities to do good. Showing maturity well behind her age (for reasons we eventually see) Avalon is likewise someone that Dr. Murphy is not going to shelter away, though she will take all precautions she can.

The plot and action of the novel stay engaging throughout, as one would expect from a thriller. The writing is by no means fancy or awe inspiring, rather by-the-book and generally unadorned. I would have loved it to be a little deeper and more interesting in its language (especially given the scientific concepts of language featured here), but I see this as no different from best-selling thriller novels. Similarly, Akenov and his grand plot reveal to be cartoonish and silly from the perspective of scientific speculation realism – but again, this seems to me no different than what large selling thrillers typically are.

Meaning, if you like political thrillers with a good dose of science and aren’t particular about them being works of art, this is a book you might find very entertaining and worth a read. That kind of thriller can go either way for me, sometimes I find them too silly, or too badly written in language. For me this kept those at an acceptable/adequate level. What really brought the novel slightly higher for me to enjoy more than, say, the average thriller are two factors: the protagonists and the setting.

Kazakhstan provides an excellent unique element to The Hunt for FOXP5 to set it apart from competing thrillers that may stick with the usual US – enemy relations. (To clarify, while Akenov, a Kazakh is the villain, he’s not really acting on behalf of his government per se.) Kaufman, who has previously worked in Kazakhstan contributed this aspect, I would assume, and it allows for details for readers to discover that decorate and enrich the plot and science backbone of the novel.

Dr. Michelle Murphy and Avalon also make fantastic protagonists. It is nice having two female stars being both heroes in a political action thriller AND brilliant scientific minds at the same time. Young women who might think that science or global affairs isn’t something they could be involved in would find inspiration in this.

This review comes long after the initial publication of the novel, which I regret. I didn’t like a previous novel from this Science and Fiction series, so I didn’t rush to read this one as quickly as otherwise. But now finally the review. I hope it encourages some who have an interest in genetics and/or thrillers to find a copy of this.


FIRST GEAR by Patricia C. Lee

First Gear
(Sadie Hawkins Mystery Book 1)
By Patricia C. Lee
Phoenix Literary Publishing — August 2020
ASIN: B08CCDKDMN
— eBook


If you are looking for one last relaxing ‘beach read’ as the summer winds down, an enjoyable mystery/thriller I’d recommend would be First Gear, a quick escape from pandemic-driven anxiety with a plucky protagonist and compelling supporting supporting characters. Previous author of a paranormal romance series, Patricia C. Lee here turns to a mystery series featuring Sadie Hawkins, a recently divorced Texan who has inherited her uncle’s logistics company. In contrast to her short stature, Sadie exudes an air of fierce power. Moving on in her personal life while trying to make a success of her business, she meets challenges with her enterprising and tenacious nature.

Desperate to develop her business, Sadie accepts a job moving a collection of antiquities, including a mummy, despite the suspicious details of the job. The client needs the transfer done immediately, and is willing to pay extra. With the documentation looking legit, Sadie accepts. However, arriving at the delivery destination at night, she finds no one there to accept delivery. As she waits, an assailant attacks her, and she later awakens to find the cargo stolen and a fresh corpse replacing the mummy. With the police suspecting her of theft and murder, and her client mysteriously vanished, Sadie begins investigating what has occurred to save herself and her business.

I’m unclear why Lee would name her series protagonist Sadie Hawkins. Its familiarity feels distracting, and it gives the present-day story a clashingly archaic feel. I knew the name in context of a dance, but had no concept of what it was, or why it was so named. Wikipedia helped, but I still don’t see how the reference even symbolically relates to the character. Beyond her name, I adored everything else about Sadie. She isn’t trained in investigation or law, but finds herself in a situation where she must solve a crime through her inherent skills and drive. Though tough and independent, she is hardly perfect. She makes some questionable choices and errors, and at times she needs help from her friend Tanya, her ex-husband (who she doest still speak with), or new acquaintances she meets.

There are a few points in the novel where Lee writes something that is inaccurate. The first I noticed is when a line confuses The Munsters and The Addams Family. At another point an idiom incorrectly uses the wrong homonym. The thing is, being written from Sadie’s point of view, I don’t know if these are authorial errors, or an indication of Sadie’s character. Even if the former, it ends up working splendidly well, because it makes Sadie seem so lovably sincere and passionate about her observations, even if they aren’t technically precise. That sums up Sadie so well.

The mystery aspect of the plot takes several chapters to really get set up, and even after the crime, the mystery and action doesn’t take up the fore quite as much as Sadie’s character development and the introduction of other characters. The crime is more of a backdrop for getting to know protagonist and cast. This may be an issue for those that care more about figuring out plot clues and details in the mystery genre, but those that accept the crime element as a simple backdrop shouldn’t be bothered.

Lee clearly introduces the reader to a host of secondary characters as a way of establishing relationships and plot points for future entries in the series. I thought that decision works fine here, it makes me want to read more about them, such as a radio host (potential love interest?) that Sadie calls into for contact/comfort as she sits alone at the delivery spot with a no-show client. However, the use of all these secondary characters in each volume of the series would be excessive, and Lee could consider both abandoning some, or more slowly adding others in the future.

Very often mystery series will succeed based on some ineffable quality of just ‘clicking’ with a reader, while another – perhaps just as competently written – will fail. I think there are ways that Lee can still greatly improve her Sadie Hawkins series to make it stand out more and be balanced between all elements one might look for in a mystery novel. Yet, First Gear represents an ideal novel to test out if you are looking for this genre of light read. You can get through it in a couple/few sittings, and can determine even sooner if it is a series you want to get into, right from its beginning.

I received this not expecting anything special, even potentially finding it poor. Instead, I enjoyed two evenings of pleasant reading while at a lake cottage on vacation, and would look forward to reading more of the series.


THE MURDER BOOK by Lissa Marie Redmond

The Murder Book
(Cold Case Investigation #2)
By Lissa Marie Redmond
Midnight Ink — February 2019
ISBN: 9780738754277
304 Pages — Paperback


An unknown assailant stabs cold-case detective Lauren Riley at her desk late one night as she works alone in a Buffalo, NY Police Department. Barely surviving, and awakening in the hospital, she remembers only one clear detail of the man who attacked: he wore department issued uniform boots. Lauren soon learns the motive for the attempted murder by one of the department’s own. The cold-case murder book, the paper and photographic trails of outstanding murder investigations, is gone. Though her partner Shane Reese tries to ensure she recovers from near death, Riley instead becomes intent on discovering who assaulted her, and why they needed the murder book so badly. Discovery of a recent anonymous phone call to a now-defunct police hotline leads Riley to retired detective Charlie Daley to help track down a frightened witness who may have reawakened secrets thought covered up long ago.

I discovered The Murder Book, second in Lissa Marie Redmond’s Cold Case Investigation series, after happening upon the author at a signing at Barnes & Nobel. I’m always hesitant to start a new series, but I’m also one to welcome kismet and give support to a local author when it seems like a book I might enjoy. Often it ends up being mediocre, but I happily tore through The Murder Book and have now ordered the first novel in the series. 

There’s no shortage of mystery series out there, so the successful ones need to have something unique to set themselves apart, some sort of charm to endear themselves to readers. Most often authors accomplish this with iconic characters or setting, building a recipe that offers the familiarity of routine, spiced with something quirky or exotic. They also must offer entertaining stand-alone stories that still propel longer character arcs and an expansion of the cast and scenery. During this the writer needs to somehow pull off the trick of allowing their heroes and villains to develop, but without the essential nature of those characters to be altered.

Redmond’s professional background imparts the first special quality to her series. As a retired cold-case-homicide detective, Redmond has the expertise to infuse her plot and dialogue with details of authenticity. Set in Buffalo, the series contains local references that some readers might also appreciate. This aspect initially attracted me to wanting to read it, but I soon realized most of the references fall in the Southtowns. It might as well have been set in Boston, like a Spenser novel, for the lack of the familiarity I have with anything down there. Nevertheless, these details still provide a lived-in atmosphere to the setting that mystery series are known for.

Though it may be simplest to categorize the novel in the ‘mystery’ genre, The Murder Book isn’t the kind of story where the reader should search for clues to figure out ‘who done it’. Instead it could be more precisely characterized as a police procedural, about the investigative steps taken by Riley and her associates to bring her attacker to justice and resolve the old case that instigated the theft and her attack.

Like a procedure, Redmond writes with an instinctive, logical style that forms a well-crafted linear plot built from strings of revealed facts. While the identity of her attacker is at first unknown, Riley discovers his identity, and the gist of his motive, with relative ease. Rather than through the thrill of following that mystery, reader captivation arises through the intricacies of what Riley does once armed with her knowledge, the answer to those mysteries. Riley and her associates may know the truth, but that is far from sufficient to bring charges, close a case, or deliver justice to victims. The focus of this story is on how Riley and her associates can find a way to get the evidence they needed to prove who has stabbed her, and why it was done. One might think that the details of closing a case could get boring, but Redmond keeps the procedural aspects engaging by keeping the dangers to Riley ever-present. Knowing the identity of the person who stabbed her doesn’t help her much if they remain free and a threat to her. If anything, the tension gets worse as Riley knows more, but still feels vulnerable. Seeing how she overcomes that to outsmart the criminals and overturn power differentials fueled my enjoyment of The Murder Book

Starting with Riley, a cast of complex, fleshed-out characters makes Redmond’s job of holding reader interest easier too. On top of being at physical risk from her job, Riley also has a history of dealing with troubles in her personal relationships. Frustrated with herself over her attraction to the wrong men, Riley has an ex-husband who still induces sexual tension, and an abusive ex-fiancé. Yet, with the support of her daughter and other family members, Riley keeps finding an inner strength and stubbornness to keep going, unapologetically, to meet her challenges and surpass them. A good male support in her life is her devoted partner Reese, and the natural banter that flows between them makes their platonic relationship a big strength of the series. You actually get the sense that Reese has his own personal faults, and isn’t an ideal guy for a romantic relationship either, consistent with Riley’s attraction to, or connection with, a certain kind of guy – even if just in friendship.

Daley, the retired detective also provides a nice addition to The Murder Book, a voice of age and experience who is able to connect Riley and Reese to parts of Buffalo that normally keep distance from the police. I’m hoping we’ll see more of this character in the future, his maturity and realism allow a great perspective, connecting the detectives to not just elements of the criminal underbelly of the city, but also to economically marginalized communities who may fear police for very good reason. This latter theme ends up being a major component of the plot, and Redmond deals with it extremely effectively.   

However, the most fascinating character for me is David Spencer, a client of Lauren Riley’s side-job, whose story picks up from the main plot thread of the first book of the series. Though she began defending him, Riley is now convinced that Spencer has gotten away from murder. Though she has parted ways from her former client, he continues to appear in her life, as if taunting the truth about him that she knows. Dangerous and intelligent, Spencer represents something Riley shouldn’t want anything more to do with. But, his put-on charm and his perseverance at playing a sick game nonetheless draws her attention back in, holding hope that she might get proof of crimes that can put him away.

Even though I haven’t yet read the first novel of the series (A Cold Day in Hell) that unfolds this history between Riley and Spencer, I had no problem picking up on its highlights in relation to the main and sub-plots of The Murder Book. Moreover, it hasn’t detracted me from wanting to still read the first book, even knowing where it goes. Spencer represents a perfect series-long antagonist who will continue to plague Riley & Reese (and please readers) through future installments with his wicked genius. A Means to an End, the third book in Redmond’s Cold Case Investigations series comes out in September, but there is still plenty of time to dig into either of the other two meanwhile.

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

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The House of Shattered Wings
(Dominion of the Fallen Book 1)
By Aliette de Bodard
Roc Books – August 2015
ISBN 9780451477385 – 402 Pages – Hardcover
Source: AceRocStars Street Team


Set in an alternate history, late 20th Century Paris that lies in near ruins, The House of Shattered Wings is a dark urban fantasy of competing houses who compete for control of the city. But these houses of noble power set in the ashes of a great apocalyptic conflict are not founded or controlled by humans, but by fallen angels and ancient magic. Once at the top of political influence, House Silverspires is in rapid decline, its powerful founder gone missing decades past, and its current members now targeted by a mysterious, unknown force. As its current leader tries to maintain House Silverspires’ existence, a trio of potent wild-cards fall under its protection: a human alchemist struggling with addiction and escape from past loss, a newly fallen angel, and a strange young man of rare abilities who appears neither human nor angel.
 –
Those who read the major markets for short speculative fiction and fantasy are likely familiar with Aliette de Bodard’s science fiction stories set within her alternate history Xuya Universe. Prior to reading The House of Shattered Wings this is the only writing I really knew her from, so I was surprised to find out the novel I anticipated was a fantasy. (I later learned she does have another alternate history fantasy series of novels from Angry Robot Books). This ignorance actually made me start the novel with optimistic expectation because I was curious to read something from her that I could approach more independently from my previous reading experiences of her SF.
Of her short fiction that I’ve read, I consistently find the stories to be beautifully written. A native French speaker, de Bodard’s English prose is spectacular and her dialogue is generally engaging. Despite this, her stories have been very hit or miss in enjoyment for me. Some pulled in my attention, while others I could just never fully connect with the plot or characters. Reading The House of Shattered Wings I felt similarly. Rarely do I feel so ‘wishy-washy’ over a book. I had a difficult time first getting into the novel, but slowly began to develop some more interest as the story unfolded. Yet, overall I never felt strongly connected to its characters (perhaps due to their being so many), and I found myself strongly regretting the absence of certain elements, while still enjoying fairly well those elements that were present.
 –
Another general way to state all of this: I understand how readers could both really love this book, while also find it a big disappointment despite the obvious quality of the writing and de Bodard’s talent. Because I felt all of this, like a tug-of-war, throughout my reading The House of Shattered Wings. So then, what specifically did I like and what did I feel was missing?
To start with my negative impressions, they stem from the complexity of de Bodard’s universe that she is introducing here. The first volume in a series, it contains a troop of characters of major importance, including multiple protagonists. It is a mashup of several speculative genres while also including a prominent mystery, several angles of romance, and some decent delving into matters of spirituality, culture, and mythology. It is rich and dense: a universe I really want to get to know filled with characters that should become dear to me. But it’s all too much for just this book, the first step in what is to be an even grander series. And despite those statements, I’m going to go on and say that I wished it had something more: a fuller setting. With fewer characters, fewer twists to the plot, and perhaps fewer focused themes there could have been some more room to see more of this post apocalyptic, alternate history Paris that the characters inhabit. Another reader I noticed use the word ‘claustrophobic’, and I think this is apt. The view is so close to the myriad characters that there is little direct sense of the physical world they inhabit.
The added bit of mystery genre to this novel, however, is one factor that really made me enjoy the story, particularly by its closing chapters as I finally also got the plethora of character identities under some type of memory, control. de Bodard incorporates the magic, the fantastic, into the politics of this universe really effectively. Towards another point of the novel’s strengths: I’ve read so many novels where I adore the setup and then become embittered by its ending. While The House of Shattered Wings may try to overdevelop its setup, it does takes all of its plot threads and ties them up satisfyingly well. I finished this pleased with its conclusion, and looking forward to what future books would bring, perhaps with a bit narrower focus.
If you’re familiar with de Bodard’s short fiction, then decisions on whether to read this novel should be easy, particularly if you have strong feelings one way or the other on urban fantasy featuring fallen angels (in a generically spiritual sense). For those unfamiliar with her writing, I suggest you try out some of her short fiction if you are curious, but hesitant, to start a full novel. She has several short stories set within the Dominion of the Fallen universe. Though I haven’t read those – like her other short stories – I suspect they are representative of the high quality of de Bodard’s writing, and also contain style,  plotting, or character that will permit you to judge the ‘fit’ for yourself.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of the AceRocStars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.