Sunday, April 28, 2013

Changing the Stakes: When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted

“Ah, now that’s the life!” is, I’m 99.9-percent positive, a sentiment which no one, anywhere, will ever utter about me... which is fine. (Hey, I don’t know anyone about whom I’d say that, either). You have to live a whole different sort of existence to inspire in others such wistful longing, and most of us, well... don’t.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving, and even that which might look at first (or second or even third) glance to be the perfect situation, often turns out to be something quite different. 

In the end, how close we come to achieving our own ideals in life is as much down to the choices we make as it is to stuff like fate and luck... which, in Jo Nesbø’s brilliant stand-alone thriller, Headhunters, turns out to involve some pretty ballsy choices, indeed.

Roger Brown wouldn’t, under other circumstances, inspire much awe, admiration, or jealousy on his own merits. A smaller man (about 5’6” if he stretches) hitting middle-age, with very ordinary looks, he’s the sort of chap who has no trouble blending into the scenery, but for one thing... well, make that two things; his wife Diana is a drop-dead-gorgeous, supermodel-type, and he is phenomenally good at his job. 

Roger, you see, is a corporate headhunter, and he’s among the best in the business. (His firm doesn’t handle “small” clients unless they’re rolling in capital, and Roger handles only the most-lucrative requests for top managerial positions at the best firms.) He’s at the top of his game, and everyone who’s anyone in Norway (or Europe, for that matter) knows his name and reputation, “the headhunter who has never nominated a candidate for a job he did not get”. 

From the outside, Roger’s life seems in line with his success; his wardrobe and grooming are impeccable, he and Diana have a fabulous home in an elite neighborhood, and luxurious, late-model cars are parked in their garage. Diana’s pet project is equally-glamorous--an über-high-end art gallery, which Roger bought to give her something to do (and as repayment for something else which it’s probably better to let you read about in the book).

Remember the bit about deceptive appearances, though? It applies here; their lifestyle--the mansion and only-the-best of everything--is way over even their limit, and Diana’s exclusive gallery is a massive money pit, all expenditures with next to zero in revenues.

But, where most people would probably opt to downsize a bit, Roger has come up with another--rather novel, when you think about it--solution: he steals pricey works of art from his connections, then fences them to fund his money shortages. (Yes, really.)

It’s risky, of course... although Roger does seem to enjoy the thrill, the danger, of it all. (Clearly he enjoys it more than the thought of letting his wife know they’re seriously strapped for cash; a woman like that, who could have anyone, but chose him, well... he figures the thefts are worth the risk.) 

Of course, what always happens when greed is involved eventually happens here, too; the irresistible “big score” inevitably comes along. After being drug to yet another money-sucking art opening at Diana’s gallery, Roger winds up meeting his great white whale... Clas Greve, a recently-retired CEO who’s just relocated to Norway, and would be absolutely perfect for a plum CEO job Roger’s trying to fill. When their conversation turns to interests, and Clas describes uncovering in his inherited house a priceless painting by Rubens--one which has been missing since World War II--it seems like fate has finally smiled on Roger. The end to all his money woes is in sight... if only he can orchestrate everything (particularly Clas) into the proper position at the right time.

Things are never as simple as we talk ourselves into believing they’ll be, though, as Roger (rather unsurprisingly) discovers. Yes, he manages to get Clas interested in the job, and yes, he succeeds at breaking into the man’s house (when Roger knows Clas is otherwise occupied), and yes, he finds the painting. Problem is, he finds something else, too--the one thing he never dreamed he’d see there... which means everything has changed, never to be the same again.

To say any more (even though SO much more has yet to happen at this point in the story), would be to deprive you of the joys--the OMG! roller-coaster thrills--of reading Headhunters for yourselves. All you really need to know is that there are far more layers to Clas than it originally seems... which also holds true for everyone else in the book (from Roger to Diana to their respective associates and friends). Surprises, clever twists? Headhunters keeps them coming, left, right, and center.

One other thing you should know--particularly if your sense of humor skews to the dark, and you revel in a certain genre of movie (think the couple of really awesome [no, not the lame ones] Tarantino flicks and pretty much anything, ever, by the Coen brothers)--is that Nesbø’s tale is a treasure trove of razor-sharp wit and brilliantly-cutting observations, housed in one of the wildest shoot-em-up crime novels out there. (And if you’re worried now that this one is all style and no substance, don’t be; Headhunters is one seriously-smart suspenseful read. Just because Nesbø lets his characters be and do their most-outrageous best or worst [and hoo-boy, is it ever out-there, sometimes!], it’s always a believable sort of extreme, entirely in-character--especially once you finally understand all the hows, whys, and wherefores.)

I’ve read several top-notch Scandinavian mysteries and thrillers over the past few years, and with Headhunters, Jo Nesbø earns a prize place not only among his fellow Scandinavians, but among all thriller writers currently out there.  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Slick New Mousies

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dead Men Tell No Tales... and Make No Art

You know those “old friends”... the ones you can just be yourself around, who accept you, flaws and all, and with whom an absence--of weeks, months, or sometimes even years--does nothing to diminish the bond you share? To blatantly hijack the tagline from an iconic ad campaign, those old friends are priceless. 

So, when recently I found myself sans iPad (and thus, Kindle reading app)--which, naturally, left me rooting around for something, anything new to read--it was with immense pleasure (and no small amount of relief) that I lucked upon a very old friend (or two): the unfailingly witty-and-entertaining private detective duo of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith--finally back in action after an absence of a few years, on yet another engrossing case in the Big Apple--in S.J. Rozan’s fabulous mystery, Ghost Hero

There are certain professions in which it’s generally understood that a high percentage of people (clients, patients, whatever) will lie to you. Cops, lawyers, priests, and accountants spring instantly to mind--and so do private investigators. (Sure, you might not care if the gumshoe you’ve chosen at random from a listing in the Yellow Pages knows why you want to track down this person or that thing... but then again, you might.)  So, when Lydia senses that her new client isn’t telling her everything, she’s not surprised. She is a trifle concerned, however, when a little digging after their initial meeting unearths a big fat nada regarding the client, himself; no one named “Jeff Dunbar” matches the man she met, the address he gave is fake, and his cell number--the only way she has of contacting him--belongs to an untraceable burner phone.

But, since work has been scarce, recently--and she sort of likes having that nice, plump envelope of cold hard cash tucked away in her safe--she decides to let the fictional Mr. Dunbar keep his secrets (for now) and see where the case leads. Plus, it’s potentially a lot more interesting than following someone’s cheating spouse or catching out a dishonest employee. Dunbar claims to have heard through the art world grapevine that a trio of paintings by Chau Chun, a famous Chinese artist known for mixing classical technique with veiled political commentary, have recently come to light, and he wants Lydia to track them down. The catch? The paintings in question aren’t old paintings recently taken out of storage; they’re new Chaus... even though the artist--now known as “Ghost Hero” Chau--died in Tiananmen Square more than twenty years ago.  

Lydia’s interest is further piqued after she explains the case to Bill, her longtime-acquaintance-cum-business-partner, and he proceeds to escort her to a ritzy address on the Upper East Side, saying he knows a guy who specializes in contemporary Chinese art. To her surprise, Jack Lee (a handsome, fellow American-born Chinese guy--not that Lydia’s looking, or anything) isn’t just an expert, but another private eye, whose area is art thefts and crimes. And, it turns out that he has also just been hired--not by Dunbar, but by a professor who knew Chau way back when in China--to look for those same paintings. Lydia, Bill, and Jack agree to share key info while continuing to work their respective cases, since they would otherwise be bumping into one another at every turn. 

Lydia and Bill head off (in disguise, no less) to meet with a gallery owner--a royal chauvinistic pig of a sleazebag gallery owner--whom Jack is pretty sure knows something about the whereabouts of the mystery paintings; meanwhile, Jack busies himself doing online research from his office. But, after someone takes potshots at him from the street--blasting out the picture window and leaving bullet holes in his walls and ceiling--the trio decide the strength-in-numbers thing probably isn’t a bad idea, and join forces.

The deeper they dig into the whereabouts of the mysterious paintings--traveling all over New York City and its environs in the process, the more they realize what a hot potato the case is, with everyone from gallery owners (respectable ones and the sleazebag) to prospective buyers (including, unfortunately, several trigger-happy mobsters) to government sources (from their government, as well as the People’s Republic of China)... all making it clear just how desperate they are to get their hands on those elusive Chaus.

I’ve been a big S.J. Rozan fan since Lydia and Bill’s debut in 1994’s China Trade, and, as proven by her latest, Ghost Hero, theirs is a pairing which has only gotten better with age--a real rarity among long-running series. Smart, clever Lydia is as tenacious (and long-suffering) as ever, with wry, observant Bill her constant foil. Their dialogue is sharp, amusing, and never feels forced. (Superb recurring characters, such as Lydia’s much-put-upon Chinese mother and her much-younger computer-whiz cousin, just add to the whole package.)

Rozan’s skill isn’t restricted to characters and banter, though; she also has a real gift for intelligent, complex, and logical plotting. Ghost Hero doesn’t go where you first think it will, nor does it follow the path which you next suppose it might. There are twists, turns, and surprises aplenty, here, creating a challenging, fascinating puzzle for her characters and her readers alike.

It goes without saying that Ghost Hero will appeal to fans of genuinely well-crafted mysteries, but it has a lot to recommend it to a much wider group of readers as well, touching as it does on art, politics, international relations, and the Chinese-American experience. I had a really hard time putting this one down, and now, I can’t wait to see what happens next.  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Finely-Crafted Mousies

Thursday, April 11, 2013

When the Fear that Breaks... is the Fear that Saves

Everyone is afraid--really, truly afraid--of something

Most of us are able to handle the fear, and as long as we don’t dwell on whatever it is that scares the pants off us, we’re okay. For some people, though, the whole “not dwelling on it” thing is impossible, and it’s that terror which defines their lives.

Of course, if the worst actually were to happen, the above would all be moot.. since being forced to face one’s fears is very different from merely thinking (or not thinking) about them. One woman discovers just how different in Elizabeth Haynes‘ brilliant psychological thriller, In the Darkest Corner.

A carefree party girl who lives to go out on the town (and stay there till the wee hours of the morning, whenever possible) with her girlfriends, twenty-something Catherine Bailey wasn’t expecting to meet someone like Lee Brightman. Movie-star handsome, charming, and funny--and rocking some major bad-boy sex appeal--he’s like a fantasy come true. Best of all, he’s obviously really into her, and almost before she knows it, they’re a couple. 

It doesn’t take long for Catherine to realize there’s trouble in paradise, though. Lee has a lot of secrets (including what he does for a living, oddly), some serious control issues, a jealous streak run rampant, and--most troubling of all--a proclivity for violence... which, increasingly, is directed toward her. 

When she looks to her friends for help getting away from him, she’s shocked to discover that not one of them believes her; clearly, he has somehow gotten to them first. Now, the friends who at one time had speculated about his air of mystery, are looking at her with suspicion, and accusing her of being cruel and unfaithful by wanting to break his heart.

With no one left to turn to, Catherine devises a desperate escape plan on her own... and succeeds, after a fashion (although not without grievous psychological and physical damage to herself). She even manages to get the police--and then a court--to sort-of believe her story, and a miserable year later, Lee winds up in prison, while Catherine... well, she finds herself in an awful mental and emotional state, just trying to survive.

Flash forward four years. Cathy, as she’s now known, has moved to the city. She has a good job, a nice flat... and a debilitating case of OCD, which causes her to spend hours each day, repeatedly checking all the door locks and window latches, over and over again (and thinking about doing so, the rest of the time). Afraid to make friends, her existence is a solitary, depressing one; it’s not much of a triumph over her abuser, this life she’s managed to notch out for herself. 

She feels the first glimmers of hope that maybe life can one day be kind-of okay--perhaps even normal--again, after meeting the man who’s just moved into the flat above hers--Stuart Richardson, a nice guy who actually seems to understand her condition, instead of thinking she’s some kind of freak. She even agrees to see a specialist for treatment, something she’s never been willing to do before . 

That’s when she gets the phone call... the one alerting her to the news that Lee has just been released from prison... and Cathy's quasi-safe little world immediately starts crumbling all around her again.

Does she have it in her, to not only protect herself, but to fight back? If there’s one thing she knows in her heart, it’s that she's all out of choices.

It’s impossible to ever know exactly what another person is going through. At best, we can really only guess, using some combination of observation, listening, and applying whatever personal experiences might be semi-relevant. If you’re the one dealing with the Really Awful Situation, there are certain behaviors which other people would expect (and thus, find “acceptable”)... and then there’s something like the full-blown case of OCD, depicted here, which falls way outside of what most of us would consider the norm. 

In the Darkest Corner paints a fascinating (not to mention, disturbing) portrait of someone taken to her breaking point--and then beyond--and does so in an intensely-compelling way. Cathy’s first-person narrative gives the story its gut-wrenching poignance and palpable immediacy; she tells things as she lives them. (Had it been written from the distance of a third-person perspective, the same urgency wouldn’t have been possible.) 

Haynes understands just how to draw her readers in... and how to keep us there, breathless with nervous tension, fraught with worry, and straining to reach the last page. In the Darkest Corner is a fantastic psychological thriller... but if you’re not big on labeling things, just call it a really great read. I know this one’s gonna stick with me for quite awhile. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: All the Mousies