One of the reasons we read crime fiction is for that satisfying click at the end, when everything falls into place and justice is done. You close the book with a sigh of relief because, once again, all is well with the world. But that isn’t the goal of Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay. Though all the elements are there—murders, police, secrets, suspense—Cha pushes the limits of the genre with this ambitious exploration of the lives of two families on opposite sides of the racial divide in Los Angeles, one African-American and one Korean-American, linked by an incident that blew up into riots in 1992. It’s part Greek tragedy, part contemporary noir.
A native of L.A., Cha drew her inspiration from a true story—the killing of teenage Latasha Harlins by a Korean convenience-store owner, who was let off with no prison time—imagining the paths the families had taken since and putting them on a collision course in the present. (With one exception, the characters aren’t based on real people.) It’s a bold approach, which succeeds because Cha cuts through the noise of the headlines, demonstrations, and social-media incitement so we can make out the individual voices beneath the din.
It’s part Greek tragedy, part contemporary noir.
The narrative is anchored by two very different people: Shawn Matthews, the ex-gangbanger brother of the murdered Ava, now a family man who works as a mover, and Grace Park, the sheltered daughter of the girl’s murderer, who learns that everything she grew up believing about her parents was a sham, right down to their names. While Shawn, who’s done time in prison, just wants to keep his head down and his family safe, Grace emerges from her cocoon of cluelessness with de-stabilizing speed.
Grace’s parents tried to smother their shameful history in a new place with new identities, but the past is ever present for the Matthews clan, a wound that’s reopened in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by an L.A.P.D. cop. It feels like the time for long-delayed vengeance, though the avenger’s motivation is murky. And what happens afterward? Does the violence stop there, or does the cycle repeat endlessly and furiously, until the whole city burns? Cha doesn’t deliver platitudes about closure and forgiveness, and with this clear-eyed yet compassionate book, she takes a necessary step toward understanding.
If, after such a potent dose of reality, you crave a hit of well-crafted escapism, you can’t do better than John Dickson Carr’s 1938 mystery, The Crooked Hinge, which is being reissued this month as part of Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series. Though Carr isn’t as well known today as some of his counterparts from the golden age (the period between the wars when well-plotted mysteries flourished), he deserves to be.
Carr’s unusual detective is Dr. Gideon Fell, a corpulent amateur sleuth whose personal soundtrack of hums and wheezes seems to fuel his intricate thought processes. He frequently appears to be half asleep, but in fact doesn’t miss a trick. Which is vital in solving the case he just happens to stumble upon in a small English village. Two men, both claiming to be the long-absent aristocrat Sir John Farnleigh, have been vying for that title and all that goes with it during an intensive Q&A with lawyers; before the identity of the true Sir John can emerge, one of them is found with his throat cut in a pool on the Farnleigh estate. Is it suicide or murder? Since no one even knows for certain who the dead man is, a solution seems impossible. Enter Dr. Fell, who follows the treacherous, overgrown trail to the truth, along with a small circle of friends and neighbors who help clear away the underbrush. Though the setting is traditional, the author’s voice feels sharp and original, and the plot, which takes some dark and exotic twists involving the sinking of the Titanic, an 18th-century automaton, and local witchcraft, is nevertheless soundly and precisely conceived. You have to be a bit of a genius to figure it out yourself, but the fun is in the trying.
Though Sherlock Holmes took on his share of exotic cases, Nicholas Meyer has something weightier in mind with his latest Holmes revival, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols. Purporting to be “adapted from the Journals of John H. Watson M.D.,” this sure-footed pastiche takes on the true origins of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the nutty anti-Semitic document published in Russia in the early 1900s that was supposedly proof of a conspiracy by Jews to take over the world.
Watson reports that Mycroft Holmes (head of the British Secret Intelligence Service in this iteration), initially alarmed that it might be legitimate, asks his younger brother to find the source of the incendiary manuscript. Sherlock almost immediately deduces that it’s fake, then sets off for Russia with Watson and a liberated young female novelist acting as translator to find the perpetrator. The conceit of the newly unearthed Watsonian journals, complete with footnotes and the excitement that comes with the magic words “The game’s afoot,” works seamlessly with Meyer’s deep dive into the history of this appallingly persistent hoax.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City