Book Review: The Air Raid Killer by Frank Goldammer

The Air Raid Killer by Frank Goldammer

Dresden, 1945, is a city on the edge. The Third Reich is in its (well deserved) death spiral, the Russians are encroaching to the east as American forces push through from the west, air raids are constant, and wartime rationing and an influx of refugees have left the city on the brink of starvation. Amidst all this chaos, a brutal killer stalks the streets. Max Heller is a Detective Inspector with the Dresden police, a man seeking justice in a country descended into paranoia and chaos. As the body count grows, Heller must not only find a way to stop a serial killer who strikes when the air raid sirens sound, but to ensure justice in a city still under the thumb of Hitler’s fanatics.

This book was fantastic, a noir in every sense of the world. Goldammer has painted a world in the deep blacks, grays, and browns of a world torn apart by war, an ancient city beset on all sides by enemies and destructive forces. Goldammer has painted us a vivid picture of a city under seige, and the hardships its people must endure. In the midst of starvation, overflowing refugee camps, and the brutality and paranoia of Hitler’s officials, one serial killer is something most people are content to overlook, to let slide without investigation as the realities of war seem so much mire dire. Max Heller is the perfect detective to place into this mess. His overarching sense of duty and justice compel him to see the case resolved, to ensure that he can do a small part to defend his world against true anarchy.

The story is compelling, with actual historical events woven through the plot. I finished the book in one day, more accurately one sitting. This is an engaging read, infused with the unreality and paranoia of the time period. Max Heller isn’t the most fleshed out protagonist out there, but he doesn’t have to be. Rather, he represents our “better angels” fighting a losing battle against horror.

Fans of WWII era stories, dark mysteries, or serial killer-related plots will really like this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Mister Tender’s Girl by Carter Wilson

Mister Tender’s Girl by Carter Wilson

Fourteen years ago, Alice Hill was brutally attacked by two of her schoolmates, twin girls obsessed with Mister Tender, a demonic bartender character created by Alice’s father. After the attack, her father vowed never to create another Mister Tender graphic novel again. But there are people out there still obsessed with Mister Tender, and Alice, still bearing the physical and emotional scars of her attack, slowly starts to feel he shadowy presence of someone in the background. Someone who knows everything about her past, someone who wants to own her future…

First of all: hurray! A psychological thriller that bring me back hope for the genre! If you’ve been following my reviews you’re no doubt aware that I was getting mightily sick of the damaged heroine psycho trope of most thrillers on the market now, looking to pick up some lingering success from Woman on the Train or Gone Girl. Most fall disappointingly short, but Mister Tender’s Girl has that ineffable something, a spark of real suspense and credible characters that make the genre so much fun.

It doesn’t hurt that the story is based on a true story, the Slender Man stabbing that took place in Wisconsin in 2014. It might just be me, but the fact that something this messed up has actually happened grounds the story and makes it that much more compelling.

Wilson offers us a vastly damaged protagonist in Alice, but her paranoia and PTSD seem to have been earned, rather than tacked on by an author trying to make a main character different. This is a girl who has gone through hell–and has the psychological scars to prove it–yet is trying her best to deal with her past and succeed in the present. The plot twists and turns, as it should, but Wilson is able to keep the plot twists feeling organic. Remember folks, it’s not how many plot twists you have, but how you use them.

This is a dark, occasionally grim look at the fragility of a woman who’s life is falling apart, and who may never have been in control of it in the first place. Yet Wilson is able to set this fragility against a determination and strength that may save her, or may hasten her undoing. In short, this book has restored my faith in the psychological thriller genre.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Bookish First in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Shallow Graves by Maureen Boyle

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Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer by Maureen Boyle

In 1988, the bodies of women began to turn up along the highways outside of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The town had begun as a whaling hub, then changed its industry over to textiles when whaling began to wane. Frederick Douglass had once been a resident of the town, and Moby Dick was based on whaling ships heading out of town. By the 1980s, however, New Bedford was struggling with that near universal blight: drugs and crime. Many of the victims (eleven in all) were troubled women, drug addicts, prostitutes, or both. The pool of potential suspects was vast, from fishermen to white collar workers to itinerant truckers. Nearly all the victims were found months after their bodies had been dumped, and modern forensic science as we now know it was in its infancy.

This is a mystery that remains an ongoing puzzle to this day. Boyle, one of the reporters who first broke the story in 1988, presents the facts to us in an organized, thorough manner. You can tell that this mystery has remained on her mind and in her heart for thirty years. Boyle generally leaves herself out of the narrative, focusing on the investigators, the victims and their families, the suspects, and the local politics. This is a true crime story written against the backdrop of a town in decline, but trying desperately to reinvent itself amidst its troubles. This should resonate strongly with many of us in this day and age, as the specter of heroin abuse and urban/suburban decay continue to blight many communities in this country.

Fans of true crime will enjoy this strong entry to the genre. Even if you don’t usually gravitate towards crime novels, Boyle’s portrayal of New Bedford in the 1980s is worth reading in and of itself.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Book Review: The Man from the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Robin McCarthy

On June 9th, 1912, eight people, a family of six and two children visiting for the night, were murdered with the blunt side of an axe. The murder of eight people, six of them children under 12 years of age, rocked the small farming town of Vilisca, Iowa. But the Moore family were simply the latest victims of this violent perpetrator. Someone with an axe to grind (sorry, I really, truly couldn’t help myself) was traveling across the breadth of the country at the turn of the twentieth century, and leaving piles of corpses in his wake . . .

Bill James is a baseball guy. Specifically he is a baseball statistician, and he approaches this topic with a mathematical mindset. After all, the Vilisca murders, considered to be one of the most infamous unsolved mass murders in US history, are tentatively considered to be part of a series of serial killings at the turn of the twentieth century, but James expands on the widely accepted dimensions of the serial killer’s crimes. Rather than the several crimes most ascribe to the killer, James posits that the man from the train began his cross-country murder spree as early as 1898, and may be responsible for over one hundred murders.

Such a claim often precedes eye rolling and offers of tin-foil hats, but in this book, James provides the reader with carefully researched and sourced data to back up his assertions. Using newspaper records from across the country, combined with modern profiling techniques, James has unearthed a truly startling number of mass murders like the one in Vilisca. Like any good historian, James is careful to use primary sources where possible, and to document where the data available clash with his hypothesis. While several similar crimes are dismissed out of hand as being tied to our suspect, James makes quite a strong argument for adding several more murders to the ones traditionally ascribed.

Fans of history and true crime (lovers of Devil in the White City take note) should enjoy this book. But the casual reader need not despair. James’ writing style is accessible and engaging, and replete with dark humor and some truly monstrous puns.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

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Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Milly used to be Annie. But everything changed when she walked into a police station and told the officer on duty about her mother. Annie’s mother was a serial killer. Annie got a new foster family and a new name, and her mother is in jail.

But the trial is coming up, and Milly-Annie must face her mother one more time, must be the one who sends her away for good. But with the stress of the trial and tensions in her foster family; is Annie her own person, or simply her mother’s daughter?

This is one of those ubiquitous psychological thrillers which are all the rage these days (young people, grumble grumble). But Good Me Bad Me stands out from the pack for being a truly disturbing read. Honestly, parts of this book read more like a horror novel than a psychological thriller. I’m a fan.

Milly’s past is shown to us in flashes and snippets, with a lot left implied or unsaid. Her mother is truly a boogeyman figure, who looms dark and sinister even when Milly is supposed to feel safe. And yet, Milly’s relationship with her mother is more complicated than monster and victim. Milly hates and fears her mother, yes, but these emotions are tangled up in a truly twisted love of the person who raised her, and a desire to make her mother proud (The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne superbly explored this fucked up family dynamic).

The book loses a bit of steam for me when it goes in for all the high school drama (yes, yes, teenagers are the real psychopaths, this is old news). Though the truly horrific bullying experienced by Milly provides a great backdrop for her struggle between some semblance of normality, or the sociopathic tendencies nurtured by her mother.

In all, this book is a standout in an overcrowded genre. Those who enjoy their books dark, disturbing, and more than a bit fucked up will want to add this one to their to-read lists.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

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Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Thirty years ago, Dustin’s aunt, uncle, mother, and father were brutally murdered. His testimony helped to put his adopted older brother, Rusty, in prison for the crime. Now, Rusty is being released from prison, his innocence proven by DNA evidence. But if Rusty didn’t commit the murders, then who did?

In the meantime, it appears that a serial killer might be operating in northern Ohio. Dustin, now a psychologist in Cleveland, becomes obsessed with a series of suspicious deaths after one of his patients brings up his own investigation. As Dustin and his family are pulled apart by both the events of thirty years ago and today, the nature of right and wrong, sanity and insanity becomes more and more muddled.

This was a fascinating book, though at times I found it difficult to read. The story, which weaves between past events and the present day, is mainly from the point of view of Dustin himself, and his adult son, Aaron. The story begins with Dustin learning of Rusty’s release from prison. This knowledge, and the anticipation of retribution from his adopted brother, start off a chain of events leading Dustin down a rabbit hole of obsession. Aaron, dealing with drug addiction, is nearly as unreliable a narrator as Dustin.

As the two men move through the story, the narrative literally fragments, some pages having several competing point-of-views for the same people of the same event. Thoughts and sentences are often left unfinished, as minds drift and alternative thoughts impose themselves upon the narrative. Ill Will explores the fragility of self and the unreliability of perception and memory.

I enjoyed this book. It is a uniquely written thriller, and the plot twists and turns and doubles back on itself often enough to confound the reader. In places, the formatting, especially with the competing narratives, can make the book hard to follow. To me, the book is reminiscent of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, a psychological thriller which also used atypical formatting to advance the plot. And, like House of Leaves, I strongly suspect that this is a book you will either love or hate.

I would recommend this book to someone who likes darker psychological thrillers, but not to anyone who requires concrete endings or neatly tied loose ends. In that regard, Ill Will is a lot like the recently published Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (my review can be read here) in that it is a creepy book which will mess with your head, and the ending will leave you with nearly as many questions as answers. In sum, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but it is certainly not for everyone. If you enjoyed either of the two books previously mentioned, then I strongly recommend reading Ill Will.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Ill Will will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

Book Review: The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe


The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe

This is a unique take on the true crime genre. In 1998 Kendal Francois confessed to the serial rape and murder of eight women. He had strangled them, then drowned them in his bathtub. To dispose of the bodies, he simply carried them up to the attic of the home he shared with his mother, father, and siblings. No one in the house noticed anything odd, even while living amidst eight rotting corpses.

But The Spider and the Fly isn’t about that, not really. This book hovers between a memoir and a nonfiction crime novel. Claudia Rowe was working as a freelance reporter with the New York Times when Francois confessed. She became obsessed not with the crimes themselves, but with the murderer. She began a correspondence with him that lasted for four years. During that time, Francois and Rowe would each constantly test each others boundaries, he looking for intimacy, she wanting to know exactly what made him tick. Their correspondence would also make her look into her own troubled past, and confront her own inner demons.

While this book is certainly not what I had expected from one billed as “true crime,” I did wind up enjoying the book. There are countless books, some more sensational than others, that detail the crimes of our more infamous killers, but the focus on this book, looking into the nature of the killer, and his relationship with Rowe, is a new spin, and, ultimately, refreshing. This book doesn’t linger on the gory details of Kendall Francois’ crimes, instead we see an awkward and overly large black man, raised in the overwhelmingly white town of Poughkeepsie, New York. We see his social and mental isolation, and the home life that helped shape him into the person he would become. At no point does Rowe excuse or try to mitigate the crimes Francois committed, but she does try to bring a picture to her reader of the damaged man who lived alongside the monster.

I would recommend this book for true crime readers who know what they are getting into. If you’re looking for blood, gore, and sensationalism, you won’t find it here. If you’re okay with a quieter kind of thriller, if you want a (sometimes frustrating) look inside the mind of a serial killer, this book is just the ticket.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Spider and the Fly will be available for purchase on January 24th, 2017.