Reading books about criminals, thugs, and lowlifes is an escape for me. Hell, reading books about people like me acting in complete desperation is even an escape, an odd one I will grant you that. I also enjoy reading books by authors that are different than me, an old white straight guy. I try to search out for these authors, but given my choice of genre is dark crime fiction, the pickings are slim in the small press world.
So I branch out in the mystery genre to the more popular stuff like serial killer thrillers, cozies, psychological thrillers, police procedurals, and PI book. And when I read these, I am usually disappointed. Hell, I’m even more disappointed when I read these books published by the Big 5, look at my reviews of Meg Gardiner, CJ Tudor, and Steve Hamilton as proof. The way many of these books resuscitate old worn tropes I find tiring and lazy, but many readers do find pleasure in them.
Here’s my problem. If I don’t try are read books outside of what I like, the authors I review will skew 85% male and 15% female, 85% white and 15% writers of color. I know this because those were my stats from last year. Not only is that an issue for readers of this blog, but most importantly this is an issue for me as a reader. Reading over a large pool of writers gives me an opportunity to hear voices that I would not normally be acquainted with and I like that.
So I continue my search of books in the expanded mystery genre that includes many writers who I am unfamiliar with in hopes of finding something good, something I enjoy. And, boy, do I like finding them.
For example, the only reason I picked up Marietta Miles’s “Route 12” was that it was written by a woman and I’m more than happy I read it. “Route 12” has stuck with me these past two years like no other book and it is one I believe that should be in the canon of contemporary crime fiction. Seriously, it’s that good.
I’ve also been lucky a few more times in my search of the mystery genre with JJ Hensley’s “Bolt Action Remedy”, Leye Adenle’s “Easy Motion Tourist”, Stephen Mack Jones’s “August Snow”, and Lilja Sigurdardóttir’s “Snare”. Even with all the crap I have to sort through, these are the books and writers that make it worthwhile to read outside my comfort zone.
This post started as a review of Carol Wyer’s “The Birthday” (Bloodhound Books), but it changed drastically as I wrote. “The Birthday” wasn’t for me at all, but if you dig the typical police procedural that is out there today, this may be for you. Buy: Amazon
Thanks for stopping by Unlawful Acts and reading this article.
Sorry I’ve been away from writing reviews for the last month. Part of it was the annual slog through the sunless swamp of low winter in the Pacific Northwest and part of it was that my way of dealing with the black-afternoon blahs was to retreat to the comfort-food reading that got me through a lot of long lonely nights in Christian boarding school: John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Charles Williams, Peter Abrahams, Stephen King, etc.
But I’ve been doing a lot of other reading, too, of more current work.
I’ll start catching you up on those with a question: Is it fair to judge a book by the established standards of its genre, or should it simply be judged on its own merits? I admit I tend toward the former since most readers of crime fiction read, well, a lot of crime fiction, be it P.I. novels, or procedurals, or cozies, or hardboiled tales.
But I always think about the question every time I read a new book.
I ask because A Map of the Dark, by “Karen Ellis,” a pseudonym for Katia Lief, is basically a standard-issue supermarket-checkout-lane suspenser with a surface layer of sophisticated prose—run-on sentences are oh so like totally literary!—that brings to mind a novel-length New Yorker story.
Like the wretched Descent by Tim Johnston, an obnoxiously overpraised “literary thriller” from a few years ago, it pays slavish homage to the tropes that most readers of domestic suspense and law-enforcement procedurals will recognize. In this case, an FBI agent with a haunted past; missing teenage girls; a hot partner with an undercurrent of personal appeal, etc. etc.
But, despite its cut-above-convention pretensions—Elsa Myers, the FBI agent in question is a surreptitious skin cutter, a female analogue of sorts to Frank Marr, the drug-abusing ex-cop from David Swinson’s two novels—it’s really just the same old story you’ve likely read dozens of times before from Catherine Coulter or Alison Brennan or J.T. Ellison or any of the many mass-market FBI-fetishist authors out there.
And it’s done competently but with no special skill: its two big twists are telegraphed far too obviously for them to have much impact on anyone who has read more than a few missing-girl or FBI-agent thrillers.
(I had the same experience with the even-more-hyped pseudo-Hitchcockian The Woman in the Window, by man-pretending-sort-of-to-be-a-woman “A.J. Finn,” which I disliked so much that I don’t trust myself to review it dispassionately.)
The flip side of the question for me came in my reading of May, from Marietta Miles.
When I first read it, I found myself disappointed that it wasn’t more of a cat-and-mouse thriller in its final act, given how skillfully it isolated three people with colliding agendas on a storm-swept North Carolina coastal island. Imagine that: I wanted it to hew to the tropes of the crime genre.
Then I relaxed and realized that May’s heart lay elsewhere, that it isn’t a plotted crime novel so much as a novel that stumbles across crime in the course of peeling back the cover of how real people live when they live close to the ground. May, at heart, is an utterly compelling character study of a wounded woman trying to stumble her way clear of complete shutdown, and of two teenage boys whose compulsive needs put them on a collision course with her need to be needed.
May is the sort of novel I’ll revisit simply because it’s much more than plot twists and pulse points. It’s a nuanced immersion in quiet, almost dignified brokenness, and in time and place (the narrative is split between the early 1970s and 1987, and Louisiana and North Carolina). A perfect mirror moment at about the novel’s halfway point:
May doesn’t think she has what other women have. The way of a mother. When she visits with Linda and her boys she sits next to them on the couch or even in one of their little chairs, working at making them smile. She is also breathless for the duration, knowing something bad will happen and sure it will be her fault because babies are so weak and breakable.
It turns out that May is wrong, that she has what it takes to care for someone more broken than she, and the great pleasure of MAY is in finding out how she finds out. May would never be an FBI agent, nor want to be, but under all that storm damage in her soul is a strong instinct for setting things right. Right enough to live with, anyway.
I was a bit worried about reading Marietta Miles’ new book May because if you have followed me on social media or have read this blog in the past, you will know that I am a huge fan of Miles first book Route 12 which a collection of two novellas that I know is one of the best books written in several years. There was no way Miles would be able to live up to the standard she set in Route 12 with May, that just doesn’t happen. Right?
I even got an advance reader copy back in October and I still hadn’t read it. I was a coward. I asked around to some folks who had read May and all I heard was praise for the new book. I put the e-ARC aside and ordered myself a paperback. Hell, I’m a fan of Miles’ writing calling Route 12“devastatingly remarkable” and I love to lend out books from small presses to friends who aren’t there yet.
The good news is that Marietta Miles did not disappoint with May. Her writing is mesmerizing and lyrical. We are drawn in even as the most horrendous things are happening to her characters. May opens in 1987 on Folly Island, a fictional barrier island on the North Carolina coast. She is in line at a small convenience store and a drunk boy in front of her counts out his change to by a packet of smokes. There is something about this boy, his attitude and the way he carries himself, that alarms her.
Outside, the kid stands next to the bed of her truck, his back to her. The screen door falls shut and he looks behind, shaking his hips and zipping up his pants. May stays put, hoping he doesn’t see her.
The drunken boy jumps in his Trans Am and pulls loudly out of the parking lot.
She heads off in the same direction as the Trans Am, turns on the radio. Folly only pulls in two stations, one is country and one is oldies. Neither is very good, too much talk, but it doesn’t matter. Anything’ll do, she just wants to hear something other than her own thoughts.
The next chapter, Marietta Miles takes us back to 1970 in Shreveport during May’s senior year in high school. She lusts after Ben Parish and he lusts right back. But both May and Ben are military brats and, as so often happens, the teenagers are soon separated by forces greater than themselves. Inevitably, one forgets about the other.
Miles alternates the chapters of the book between 1987 and 1970 with the earlier years getting the greatest play. Eventually, May is sent away from her family to live with an aunt in Dare County, North Carolina. With all of the issues in May’s life, it is this event of her father sending her away and her mother not fighting to keep her that stays with May throughout her life.
Marietta Miles describes the May’s melancholy without getting maudlin. In one of the 1987 chapters, May is alone in her house as the storm approaches.
Feeling bored more than drowsy, she turns on the lamp, picks up the paperback, yellowed and dog-eared, from her nightstand, reading to make herself sleepy. Page after page and still she waits for the wash of sleep to roll over her. Her eyes drift from the words. She’s afraid, afraid she’ll stay awake all night.
It is a thought that almost brings her to tears. In the middle of the night, alone, and unable to quiet her mind she feels like she is the last person in the world.
While the minutes tick away and the night claws forward, anxiety creeps upon her. The words on the page can’t hold her attention; they run circles around her brain. She hears the humming of the fridge through the paper-thin walls and the ticking of the kitchen clock. The night moves in slow motion.
Miles’ characters are lonely, but not alone. There is something that separates them from making connections with other people whether we are reading Route 12 with Teresa and Percy or the three main characters in her latest book: May, Tommy, and Junior. If you are looking for a crime novel, this isn’t for you. If you appreciate great writing and wonderful storytelling, Marietta Miles’ May is the book you will want to read. My reservations about reading May turned out to be unfounded as Miles is just getting better and better. Her books may be short in pages, the depths we travel in Marietta Miles words are endless.
Before I sign off, can we talk about that cover, that god-awful cover May is stuck with? A book this excellent deserves a cover equally as compelling. I believe the current cover is doing a disservice to Miles and her book as a cover is supposed to appeal, to repel.
Route 12 by Marietta Miles (All Due Respect Books) opens with a hulking deputy banging on the door of an apartment while inside the darkness of the apartment, a young boy holds his hands over his ears until the deputy gives up and goes away. The two novellas of Route 12 are the stories of the accidents of humanity, not in a sense of benevolence, rather a descent into our species’ collective maliciousness. Page by page, the reader witnesses the confusion and humiliation that the characters endure from the foulness of the people close to them.
Even though I physically looked away in discomfort while reading Miles’ novellas, putting my Kindle down and taking a breath, the quality of the story and the writing forced me to read on. Miles focuses on the small things that the characters experience, not just the fear and the pain. The boy we met at the beginning of Route 12 is now in a foster facility. In the dead of night, he is dragged by the guards to a senseless beating, but instead of a clichéd description of screams and physical flailing, Miles writes, “Percy smells the thick, greasy smell of Royal Cream.”
But I read on telling myself that nothing more hideous can happen and I am wrong, so wrong. We are with Theresa, a pubescent girl, who is being moved from one family relation to another. Again, it is the writing.
Theresa slides out of the truck while Ricky grabs her train case and suitcase. She stares at the tall house. The cold night air stings her nose. With both of her bags tucked under one arm, he finds a house key on top of the doorsill and lets her in the foyer. He sets her suitcases inside and looks at her awkwardly.
“They’ll be asleep, so find your way upstairs.” He pauses. “Your grandparents will be alright to you.
“Well, goodbye girl.” He pulls the door to and locks the bolt. She listens as he returns the key to the doorsill. The truck sputters to life and chugs away. Standing in the dark, cold house alone she hears the tick tock of a clock echoing.
As the first novella came to an end, I gave myself a few days to recuperate and knowing the second, Blood and Sin, could be nowhere as abhorrent or, more importantly, as good. Again, I was wrong on both counts. Marietta Miles’ Route 12 is devastatingly remarkable both in the stories it tells and her writing.