Wednesday, April 13, 2016

it's weird, it's obscure, but most of all, it's fun: The Mummy, by Riccardo Stephens

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1912
232 pp


There are just some times when I want to curl up with a cup of hot chai tea (milk, no sugar,  thank you very much) and read something just for fun. No serious thought needed, no brain strain, just fun. And it doesn't hurt when there's a mummy involved -- it brings back good memories of childhood not only in terms of sprawling on the couch on a Saturday afternoon to watch the old black and white mummy movies, but also of reading countless pulpy stories involving Egypt, which I found fascinating back then. So when Valancourt announced that they were coming out with this book, I pressed that buy button faster than you could say Imhotep. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but when I started reading it, it turned out that it's indeed much more of a good, old-fashioned mystery novel rather than a book where a mummy is brought back to life by tana leaves.  

As it also turns out, it's a book I can't really talk about too much without spoiling things for potential readers. The basic outline goes something like this:  a certain Doctor Armiston, who lives and has his practice in the West End of London, is called upon one day to come to give his opinion on how a man met his death.  He is taken to the Albany where he finds a young man who has died from a broken neck. After giving his opinion on the matter and sending for the police, he gets up to leave.  Opening the wrong door to go out, he finds himself staring at a strange object, which he is told is a mummy case, with a mummy inside.  According to the good doctor,
"It was my first introduction to the Mummy. I wish it had been my last."
And indeed, there will be more deaths, and with each one, the mummy case is on the premises.   Eventually, Armiston learns that the strange writing on the outside of the case contains a curse, promising vengeance on anyone who dares to upset the mummy's rest.  Being a man of science, Armiston isn't buying it, but no one involved is talking.  He is brought in to a society of "Plain Speakers," where, now that he is a member, he is privy to the truth of things.  Armiston will take it upon himself to try and figure out exactly what's behind this so-called curse before there are any further deaths, which are still unexplained.

Now, if this doesn't grab your attention, I don't know what will.  Granted, it sounds like the prelude to a horror film, but I can guarantee that this is a first-class mystery with a number of elements that blend with that same pulpy aesthetic that I've always loved. There are gentlemen at their clubs, strange "bohemian" societies, science gone awry, and of course, the element of detection.  On the back of this book there is a blurb that says this book "bears comparison with the works of Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson," and that is a good description that I can live with.

It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it is most certainly mine. Granted, it can be boggy and slow in parts, but patient readers will be rewarded.   Highly, highly recommended to anyone interested in vintage mysteries with a touch of pulp on the side.  Very high on my internal shrieks-of-delightometer.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

talk about dark! Whoa! Eyes Full of Empty, by Jérémie Guez

Unnamed Press, 2015
originally published as Du Vide Plein les Yeux, 2013
translated by Edward Gauvin
181 pp

paperback (read in March)

Ever on the lookout for new crime writers, somehow I found my way to Jérémie Guez.   Eyes Full of Empty is the third in his "Parisian Trilogy." I will skip my customary rant about translations not beginning with the first in series, but well, I'm still thinking it.  This novel is dark, and I do mean dark, sort of a noirish thriller that plays out in the streets of Paris.  Before anyone says  "I thought you don't do thrillers," let me say that there is a huge difference between the same old same old poorly-written action-packed crap and a novel like this one, which is intelligent,  well written and one that above all, made me wonder once again who the true criminals in any society actually are.  This is not also not the average crime novel set in Paris that celebrates the finer things about the City of Light -- most of the action in this book takes place in a Paris where much of life happens in darkness and shadow. 

The main character is Idir, who had been sent to prison and who had served six months.  After he got out, some ten years before the present story begins, his father, a prominent physician,  had wanted him to come home and "rebuild" his life, but Idir realized he just couldn't do it.  Now he works as a sort of PI, where he often takes on some pretty shady jobs for the wealthy, allowing them to keep their own hands clean.   As the novel opens, he's with Oscar Crumley, the very person who'd put him in prison all those years ago after Idir was hired to cave his face in.  Idir needs the money ("It lets me pick up some produce and eat something besides Tuna Helper") although he really wants to destroy Crumley, "just for kicks, because I feel like it and still can." Crumley wants to hire him to find his missing brother, 22 year-old Thibault. But things are about to get strange. Idir's best friend Thomas is obsessed with the idea that his wife is cheating on him and Thomas' dad wants his very expensive stolen car recovered.  As Idir starts looking into all of these cases, he starts to get the feeling, and rightfully so as it turns out,  that something is just very, very wrong here. Ultimately, he will find himself in a position of having to balance loyalties while trying to get to the truth. 

Idir is an interesting  character. He's a different sort of self-styled investigator, one who comes from privilege, who went to the best schools, and yet he is someone who is also very much at home on the streets. He comes from a family of Algerian immigrants, with a grandmother who still bears Berber tattoos whose presence "protect her family from the evil eye and mourn her deceased husband" and a father who is a prominent physician.  Family gatherings are difficult for him -- he doesn't feel as though he fits in, since his presence seems to make everyone "uneasy."  Another thing about Idir is that he suffers from "mysterious crying jags," which can occur at any time, "disconnected from the reality of the moment."  He had, prior to prison, worked as a "basic fixer," mostly "doing people favors they were too embarrassed to handle."  Now he describes his work as following women "for jealous men," watching over kids for their parents, and sometimes threatening people if he has to.  He has friends everywhere in Paris, and has built a solid network of people he trusts and upon whom he relies when needed.  He is torn, "a depressive,"  world weary at his young age, looking for meaning in his life, and somehow hopes to find his own place in the universe. 
Eyes Full of Empty is not only dark, but rather bleak. Guez writes with a pessimism that is real; the novel is sharp and very powerful. It is in large part a social commentary on the "economic elite" - not so much in terms of money, but power.  It is also an atmospheric story that grabs hold from the first page and doesn't let go -- just my kind of book.  
I'm hoping the other two novels will be translated soon -- when they are, I'll have my finger on the buy button. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

*"I didn't know there was a book" -- Bunny Lake is Missing, by Evelyn Piper

The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2004
originally published 1957
219 pp


(read in March)

"If anything's happened it's a judgement, that's what I say!"

I just noticed right now while looking at the ISBN on the back cover that at the time this particular edition was published, plans were in the works for a remake of the 1965 Otto Preminger film of the same name. The newer version never materialized, so for now, the '65 film is what we've got, which is kind of sad since the Preminger film has only what I'd say is  a tenuous connection to Piper's novel.

Picture this frightening scenario.  A young mother  has come to pick up her three year old daughter after her first day at preschool.  Since Blanche Lake hasn't been at the school before except just once while dropping off her child Bunny (real name Felicia) earlier that same morning,  she doesn't know any of the other mothers waiting there and, while waiting for her own little one, watches as all of the other kids make their way to their parents.   A search of the school and conversations with teachers and the people in charge reveals that no one remembers even seeing Bunny that day.   The police are called in, but soon it becomes apparent that even they are having trouble believing that little Bunny ever existed -- especially since there is nothing in Blanche's apartment to show that a little girl even lives there, not even a photograph.  In fact, anything that might help Blanche to prove to the cops that she does indeed have a daughter is simply non-existent, not helping Blanche's case at all.  When Blanche catches on that they think she's making this all up, she sets off during the night on a bizarre, at times surreal sort of adventure through streets of New York looking for her child or at least some sort of proof that there even is a child.

But of course, there's way more than just the search for a missing child here.  Blanche has moved to New York City from Providence, where she had an affair with a married man and became pregnant.  Remember -- this novel was written back in the late 1950s, when single motherhood was frowned upon, and as the story progresses, it becomes very obvious that Blanche is trying desperately  to keep her secret from being revealed. Her mom is no help, still not accepting of the situation, and a trusted friend with whom Blanche was staying while pregnant and just after Bunny's birth wanted to "help" her by adopting Bunny.  She is judged and found lacking, not only for Bunny's illegitimacy, but also because she's become some sort of unfamiliar monster in the form of a working mom.  As one person in this drama notes,  "If anything's happened it's a judgement, that's what I say! That's what they learn them in college—how to drop their kids and leave them for others to take care of."  There are also a number of literary references throughout the story that bring the situation into perspective, such as the pronouncement by the shrink Dr. Newhouse, who realized that "this girl believed she was a wicked girl, and that she should be stoned through the streets with a big red A on her bosom."   

When all is said and done, Bunny Lake is Missing is a fine novel that examines motherhood, sexuality, the changing lives of modern women, and societal judgments just as much as it is a crime story.  There is much more, of course; in the edition I have there is an entire analysis in the back of the book which will shed even more light.  It's a very dark story that had me wondering if in fact, there really was a Bunny Lake, or, as is suggested, something horrific had happened to her.  While the ending (and the unraveling of the story) may leave a bit to be desired, the crime aspect of this novel, it seems to me, isn't really the point at all.  

Now to the film, which has some basic elements of the novel, but very few.  Most everything has been changed, including the location -- the story in the movie takes place in London.  Blanche is now Ann (played by Carol Lynley)  and she has arrived from the US to live with her brother Stephen (who is NOT in the novel and is played Keir Dullea)  in an apartment there, owned by a disgusting perv played by Noel Coward.   Bunny Lake does go missing from the school (unexpected joy of all joys -- one of my all-time favorite actresses ever, Anna Massey, plays one of the workers at Bunny's school)  but rather than offering us the story as written, it gets changed big time here, winding down into one of the most bizarre, surreal and downright creepy endings I've ever seen.  The final scenes gave me a big case of the willies -- trust me, I'll never look at a swingset in the same way again.  In this case, book wins hands down, but the movie will definitely disturb and is well worth watching.  

I would read the book and then watch the film; both are definitely recommended.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum

Penguin Press, 2010
319 pp


One day I left this book downstairs in the kitchen right next to the coffee maker intending to take it upstairs later,  and the next thing I knew there's a post on my husband's facebook page with a photo of this book that reads as follows:

"Hmmmmm, first she has me get more life insurance - then I see this book.  #eatouttonight‬?"

I didn't really ask for more life insurance, but his post is kind of spot on regarding this book -- one of the main points in Blum's study is that for a very long time, people who were so inclined could get away with murder when it came to poisoning.  With very few exceptions, in this period of time there were a wide range of toxic poisons that were basically undetectable, used as a weapon to get rid of unwanted people.  That all starts to change with the advent of serious forensic medicine during the 1920s, especially under the auspices of two major figures:  Dr. Charles Norris, and Dr. Alexander Gettler.  Norris was New York's Chief Medical Examiner, while Gettler was a brilliant toxicologist -- together the two started to change not only the way in which science was used in crime cases, but also the emphasis on how government should work to protect its citizens.  Beyond being just plain interesting, it's also a very good look at politics of the time, at the failures and dangers of Prohibition, and at the unsuspected dangers that lie hidden in some every-day products and how science worked to study them and ultimately lead the fight in making lives safer.  

Each section is related under a title heading bearing the name of a poisonous substance.  In each there is a case centered around that specific substance that opens the discussion, then a bit about the history, followed by a bit of scientific info and how scientists came to realize just how very deadly these substances could be. Then it's back to the case and the work of Norris and Gettler in trying to solve the many riddles each case presented, along with warnings to the public based on their findings.  Just as an example, let's take the chapter on Cyanides.  This section whets the reader appetite by starting with two deaths attributed to alcohol but which were in reality caused by poisoning by potassium cyanide.  As the author notes, by the time the true cause was discovered, "the killer, whoever he was, was long gone."  We then move into a bigger, more high-profile case having nothing to do with alcohol, but rather with the deaths of two people in an upscale hotel in Brooklyn.  A man and his wife were discovered dead in their locked room,  and while the ME's office realized it was poison, how exactly they died was a true mystery.  Before getting on with the case, though, Blum gives her readers a brief history of cyanides (there's more than one), the science behind them, and how they work on the human body.  Then we go back to earlier scientific attempts at cyanide detection, Gettler's work and the work of the police in trying to solve this strange crime.   Blum  adds in another earlier case from 1898 to further illustrate how a poisoner had escaped detection and justice, finally following the hotel case to its solution, prosecution and aftermath.  Fascinating stuff, actually, and while I don't even pretend to get the actual science of it all, Blum's brief explanations are enlightening and very interesting to read. 

The biggest focus in this book is how science as a tool in bringing killers to justice (and to exonerate the wrongly-charged innocent) began to be taken seriously, especially in the courts where it was previously undermined or derided.  Because of the beliefs espoused by Norris that a medical examiner should take his job seriously, that he or she has a duty to the public and to the course of justice, and that he/she should be a scientist and not an unqualified political appointee who makes money off of dead bodies and granting favors to highly-placed people, forensic medicine and forensic science  in general became a powerful force which is heavily relied on today, nearly a century after Norris & Gettler first got things rolling in this country.   However, beyond that, the author reveals how after Gettler, Norris and a few others took on the science behind some products that people used in their lives on a daily basis and discovered that these things were killing people, one of the most important outcomes was the sharing of their findings with government officials, with hopes that the government would take steps to protect its citizens.   Norris often had to fight not only city hall, but other government agencies whose interests coincided with big business -- for example, in his fight against leaded gasoline and especially against cheap, poisoned alcohol served to the poor during Prohibition.   Sometimes he won and sometimes he wasn't so lucky, but as things turned out, he was right.  One of the most fascinating stories in this book, for example, was about radium -- previously believed to be a substance very good for one's health and bottled in tonics or in "radium water" etc.,   Gettler and another scientist discovered just how very lethal it was and were beyond instrumental in getting these products banned.  

One interesting side note re a case I already know something about: Gettler was the guy who proved that Ruth Snyder was lying about her injuries on the night she and Judd Gray killed her husband, ultimately leading to their conviction, imprisonment and electrocution for the murder. And, as it turned out, he also proved that Ruth's husband would have died soon anyway -- ironically, his "brain was sodden with bootleg alcohol," which not only would have been lethal on its own, but also trashed Gray's testimony that Snyder came at him and he had to defend himself.  Snyder was so out of it, Gettler noted, that he "couldn't have even been propped upright to fight." 

from PBS online 

I first came across this book when one night, I couldn't sleep and decided to watch anything I could find remotely interesting at 2 a.m. and chose an American Experience episode with this title. I was hooked and then discovered that there was a book and that's all it took.  I enjoyed The Poisoner's Handbook -- one thing it did for me was that  it hit home that in some ways a lot has changed (and happily so) since that time but in others, a lot remains the same.  Today, like in the 1920s, many pro-business interests in government continue to represent the interests of corporations at the expense of the people who work in their industries; there are still people who for some reason I do not fathom continue to insist that science is wrong, undermining the work of skilled, brilliant people for some political or financial reasons.  One more thing -- this book takes more of a journalistic approach making it highly accessible to everyone, which is a good thing.  I have only one negative thing to say and that's that each chapter ends in some sort of anecdote which not only adds unnecessary fluff but gets tiresome after a while. A lot of readers might enjoy that, but I'm all about keeping the flow going so I didn't.  But that is just such a nit-picky kind of thing that really did not make my interest flag or prevent me from being absorbed in this book, and I highly recommend it, especially to people who are into historical true crime.  

Monday, March 14, 2016

*She Who Was No More, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as Celle qui n'était plus, 1952
translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury
190 pp


At the end of the movie Diabolique (the movie based on this book from 1955), the credits are just about over and suddenly there's a message to the viewers.  In a nutshell, it asks anyone who's just seen the movie to keep quiet -- to not reveal to your friends what you've just watched. So I'll be doing the same here with the novel, for the most part.  Mum's the word.   Shhhhh!  I will say, though, that the book is NOT the film, so read the book first and then go watch the movie -- to do it in the reverse order won't be fair to the novel.

She Who Was No More is less of an action novel than the study of a man terrorized and tormented by guilt, and a large part of this book takes place inside the mind of the main character.  Fernand Ravinel is a traveling salesman whose job takes him away from home on a regular basis. He had taken a law degree, but sells sporting goods (loves making flies for fishing),  and in his mind shortly after the novel opens he's thinking about the little shop in Antibes he's going to have some day in the future. Ravinel is just an ordinary guy, living a pretty ordinary, mundane life, and he isn't in the best health. He is also "sick to death, sick of life, sick of everything," and "What's more, he always would be."

 He is married to Mireille whom he describes as a "nice little thing. Insignificant however," and  their mutual friend is Lucienne, a physician. Lucienne had lived with the couple for a brief while, and she also happens to be Ravinel's mistress.  Ravinel doesn't quite remember "Which of them had really chosen the other," but he does know that
"What had brought them together was not mutual attraction, but something residing in the deeper and darker recesses of the spirit." 
She is attracted to power -- "she had to reign: it was an imperious necessity." And Fernand is, I think, a bit afraid of her, or at least afraid not to do as she tells him.  The two of them come up with a plan to get rid of Mireille, and then to claim the insurance money from a policy he'd taken out on his wife.  To maintain an alibi, Lucienne and Fernand meet in Nantes,  far, far away from Ravinel's home in Enghien; Mireille is summoned under false pretenses.  They put their plan into action, but  Fernand can't stomach watching his wife being killed and Lucienne takes charge.  He serves as the accomplice, but it is Lucienne who does the actual murder.  When the deed is finished, they take the body back to Enghien, where it is placed into the lavoir, a wash-house where they dump Mireille into a stream that runs through it.  Acting as he'd just returned from yet another trip, Fernand goes about his usual motions, and on returning home, convinces a friend to come take a look at the lavoir, which he says needs some work. Waiting for his friend to discover the body is agony for Fernand, but things get even worse when he realizes that there is no body there. Thus begins Fernand's long, tormented descent into madness, something Boileau and Narcejac do extremely well.  This is pretty much what is written on the back cover blurb, so I'm not yet spoiling anything here, and certainly don't plan to do so.

Here the focus is on the characters; once the plot is set into motion, what comes next is mainly derived from Ravinel's tormented brain.   However, to me, one of the most interesting characters in this book is Lucienne.  There are a number of hints that she may be more than what Ravinel thinks she is -- the authors go to great lengths to describe her as cold, but even more, there are plenty of hints that perhaps Ravinel isn't the true focus of her love life.  There's a description, for example, of a photo of a "very beautiful girl with fair hair and Scandinavian features," in Lucienne's surgery;  Ravinel notices that she wears a signet ring that "might have looked all right on a banker's finger or a big industrialist's...," she "wolfed her food," wanting her meat nearly raw, and she was left "cold" during lovemaking.  There are photos of Mireille and Lucienne together, happy, smiling on a vacation trip, while Fernand isn't in any of them.

And then there's the imagery -- right from the outset, the authors fill their book with fog, which I always love in a novel -- here it works extremely well.  For one thing, it turns out that as a child, Ravinel used to play this weird game where he'd make himself disappear into a dense fog, then consider himself doing an astral projection sort of thing where he'd make the crossing from the world of the living into the world of the dead.  But fog also can be a great metaphor implying not only ghosts and things that are obscured and distorted; here it also works as an awesome metaphor for ignorance.   Boileau and Narcejac, just as they did in their later Vertigo, end up not only foreshadowing what's coming but actually telegraphing future events, yet they manage to do it without falling into the trap of giving away too much.  It's very well done and the book takes you deep into some very disturbed minds down to the very last words in the book.

If you look at the Pushkin cover of this novel, there is a very small picture of a bathtub, which also features prominently in the film, but aside from tormented guilt and the action around the tub, the book and movie are incredibly different, although I'm not going to describe how in too much detail.  Let's just say that the film, like the book, is great and should definitely not be missed.  Both reflect a slowly-developing madness and paranoia among tortured and guilty souls; that's about the extent of what's common between both. However, the book stands on its own two feet and as in Vertigo, the reader really gets the idea of someone caught between two worlds, that of the dead and that of the living.  An excellent book; readers who enjoy more of an existentialist bent will find it delightfully dark, while readers looking for the film's action may be somewhat disappointed.

Highly, highly recommended -- I seriously hope more of the work of Boileau and Nacerjac will be translated some day.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

reading in tandem: The Double Indemnity Murder, by Landis MacKellar and A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, by Ron Hansen

My real-world book group recently read Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain (which, to my surprise,   they didn't care for, leaving me a bit stunned)  and in preparing for the discussion, I learned that Cain's novel had its roots in a real-life crime where double indemnity played a role in a murder.  I love historical true crime done well, and since my little grey cells were tired and needed a thinking break,  I grabbed my copy of  Landis MacKellar's The Double Indemnity Murder: Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray, & New York's Crime of the Century.   Then I discovered that Ron Hansen had written a novel based on the same crime, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, so I read that one right after.  The true crime account is worth reading not so much for the crime, but rather for the dynamic duo (she says snarkily) that decided to do away with a husband for $90+ thousand dollars in the 1920s (almost 1.3 million in today's equivalent).  

As far as murdering goes, housewife Ruth Snyder and corset salesman Judd Gray (shown here on the cover) were hopelessly inept at their craft.  Snyder latched onto Gray via sex and promises of a happy future together, and cooked up a plan to get rid of her husband Albert.  The long and short of it is that they did it, made it look like Albert was killed during a burglary, but they messed it all up and were caught immediately.  That's when the story really starts. Using transcripts, newspaper accounts, personal narratives and interviews,  MacKellar does a wonderful job here of relating "New York's crime of the century," right up until shortly after both went to the chair.  I was caught up in this story, as I said, not so much for the crime, but because of the people. I ended up feeling sorry for Judd Gray, who was definitely no match for Ruth Snyder; yes, I know he took part in a murder, but still. Had she not come along, I don't know if he'd ever kill anyone; she, on the other hand, was more or less a sociopath in the guise of a perfect housewife who canned peaches.  I think whoever she set her sights on would have been in big trouble.  It does move beyond the crime to examine, among other things,  the press and what reporters would do to keep a big story in the news. 

Fictionalizing this story is Ron Hansen, whose A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion also uses the same accounts along with MacKellar's book to tell his version of this tale.  It starts out so nicely, giving readers a Gray who is in ongoing, visible conflict because of his relationship with Ruth Snyder. It also offers a view of Ruth I gleaned from MacKellar's work -- the coldhearted woman who left her kid in a hotel lobby while she and Gray did the do in a room, the would-be killer of her husband who attempted to get rid of him more than once with a series of accidents, waiting for the insurance policy to be processed before she did the real thing.  Had he kept going this route it would have a nearly-perfect novel.  But sadly, after giving us some great insights into Gray and Snyder's characters, 

after the murder his book starts to read more like a book of true crime.  Had I not read the nonfiction version first, maybe things would have been better, but I felt like he could have done so much more with this book considering how well he'd  portrayed Gray up to that point.  Judd Gray is definitely the one to watch in all of this,  since the question really is this:  why did this man allow himself to do what he did when everything about him just screams nice guy? It is a topic I find absolutely fascinating, and it's a bit sad that Hansen was traveling this road for a long time, then just sort of let that ball drop. 

So taken together in tandem, what we have here is the proverbial mixed bag. The nonfiction account, for people who are interested in historical true crime, is well worth the read not just for the crime, but for the aftermath and a look at the police, the courts, politics, the press, the death penalty, and New York during the jazz age.   Hansen's novel could have been great but in my opinion, the book just sort of loses steam at the end.  Having said that, I'm happy to have read both, and I'd heartily recommend The Double Indemnity Murder,  less so Hansen's book, which was just great up until after the arrests.  And don't expect Double Indemnity, as it seems so many readers did going into the novel.  

Monday, February 29, 2016

Betty Boo, by Claudia Piňeiro

Bitter Lemon Press, 2016
originally published as Betibú, 2011
translated by Miranda France
313 pp


I'll start here by saying that I loved this book.  It's only February, and it's already my favorite crime novel of the year. Let's just say that in terms of current crime fiction, something absolutely spectacular is going to have to come along to move it down the list from number one.

Claudia Piňeiro is also at the top of my list of contemporary crime writers, and with good reason. In all of her books, she has this uncanny knack of being able to put her characters into some pretty extreme situations and then we watch as they exercise their consciences (or not) and act accordingly.  The results are always beyond amazing, supporting my idea that the best crime fiction doesn't necessarily have to be plot driven -- what people do and why, what they discover about themselves, and in some cases about the society in which they live, is why I read crime.  People who have not read Claudia Piňeiro's work are missing out on some of the best crime writing of our time.

As was the case in her Thursday Night Widows, the author takes us back into that bastion of elite privilege, the gated community in Buenos Aires.  This time we are at the Maravillosa Country Club, where after going through the regular rigorous security measures to get in to clean the home of Pedro Chazarreta, Gladys Varela gets to the house, starts her routine, and sees Chazaretta sleeping in a green velvet, highback chair.  Deciding to clean up a bit of whisky that's spilled on the floor from an overturned glass, she discovers that Chazaretta is not sleeping at all, but dead, throat slit and holding a bloody knife in his right hand. Despite its tightness of security,  Maravillosa had been the site of another, earlier murder, that of Chazaretta's wife Gloria. He had been the prime suspect in her death, but "on the grounds of lack of evidence," the case was dismissed.  Her murder had been committed in exactly the same way, and privately, people are saying that the way in which Chazaretta was killed is what he deserved, since most people still believe that he was Gloria's killer.

Chazaretta's death and the coverage of events marks the beginning of a partnership between the three main characters in this novel. First there is Jaime Brena, an over-sixty former crime writer for the newspaper El Tribuno,who has been demoted and  is now dealing with society news such as writing pieces about surveys about sleeping face up or face down, the occasional preschool opening, and other such mundane or ridiculous assignments. The crime beat was given to  the "Crime Boy," who is the new kid on the newspaper staff, and who, as Brena sees it, is "Very soft. Generation Google: no legwork, just keyboard and screen, everything off the Internet."  He has zero clue how to do his crime reporting job, and Brena actually feels sorry for him, and decides it can't hurt to take the kid under his wing.  The third leg of this triangle is Nurit Iscar, the titular Betty Boo, who until she decided to change direction and write a romance novel, was known as "the Dark Lady of Argentine literature," for her mystery/crime books.  However, a bad review of her romance novel took her out of the world of fiction writing altogether (except for jobs as a ghostwriter)  but she has been tasked by the editor of El Tribuno (who used to be a lover of hers) to provide write-ups about the Chazaretta murder from a home the paper is using in Maravillosa.  When the three put their heads together, this trio of loners discover that something horrific is going on, and that the deaths at Maravillosa are just the tip of the iceberg.

However great the crime plot sounds, Betty Boo moves well out of the ordinary realm of the norm in terms of just another book with just another murder investigation.  When all is said and done, the biggest focus of this book is in examining  the state of modern journalism. Brena refers to Rodolfo Walsh more than once in this novel,  an Argentinian journalist who, in 1977 in the middle of the Dirty War, wrote an open letter to the military junta and was killed the day after.  Walsh wrote that
"Millions want to be informed. Terror is based on lack of communication. Break the isolation. Feel again the moral satisfaction of an act of freedom. Defeat the terror. Circulate this information."
Brena notes that today's journalists have "turned bourgeois," and that
"Today the high priests of journalism, or 'intellectuals" in inverted commas, are happy to sound off from the safety of their studies or their holiday homes. And they think they're important because they're 'opinion-formers.' ... Many of them will offer up as an irrefutable truth something that's nothing more than their own opinion. Or the opinion of the people they work for."
Piňeiro also reveals the implications of a "news agenda that leaves out certain stories," often allowing perpetrators of major crimes to walk free. It is these "unpunished crimes," Pineiro notes, that "always conceal something more terrible than the crime itself."  For my money, she's hit the nail on the head.
 Considering that this is a novel from Argentina, this topic carries a lot of historical meaning and a lot of historical weight, but I could feasibly make the same argument about journalism and the media in this country, or for that matter, any other country where powerful people have the means to control the truth. As Nurit Iscar also notes, novelists have a responsibility as well -- to present "another reality, an even truer one," in the guise of fiction, since they "don't have to answer to any one."

Of course, there's so much more in this novel, and  it is one you could read solely for the murder plot. However, the truth is that  Betty Boo has a richness and a depth that is rarely found in crime writing these days, and it is that kind of something so out of the ordinary that I look for when I pick up a crime novel.  This book  is another one that left me stunned because of how very perceptive it is -- and I can't speak highly enough about it.