Justice means different things to different people, a truth author Daniel Friedman wrestles with in his powerful novel Running Out of Road. To Baruch “Buck” Schatz, a long-retired, much-decorated Memphis police detective who didn’t shy away from physical persuasion in his day, it was simple: arrest (or otherwise impair) the bad guy, then let the legal system sort him out. Being a Jewish cop in 50s Memphis, where some of his bosses were K.K.K. members, Schatz’s survival depended on being the baddest, the toughest, the best.
Now 90, Schatz uses a walker, has creeping Alzheimer’s, and lives in an assisted-living facility. But he’s nobody’s fool and still full of vinegar when he learns that Carlos Watkins, the African-American host of an NPR show that examines abuses of the American justice system, is revisiting one of Schatz’s old cases, involving a white serial killer named Chester March, who’s about to be executed at 80. The show focuses on the barbarity of the death penalty, though Watkins acknowledges that March may be guilty. Schatz refuses to cooperate with Watkins, who has developed an ideologue’s fondness for March as a doomed symbol of a “coercive system.” Which is ironic, given that one of March’s victims was a black prostitute and his family were cotton growers. As for Schatz, he admits that his dealings with March were sometimes brutal, but his conscience is clear—there’ll be no restorative justice or hugging it out for this old man.
Friedman, who has a law degree and a nimble mind, doesn’t stack the deck; his descriptions of a bungled lethal injection and the sickening state of one victim’s body are equally horrific. What’s important is that Schatz and Watkins try to communicate. After that, it’s up to the reader to decide what constitutes justice. Or wrestle some more.
If the Coen brothers were Finnish, they might have dreamed up something like Antti Tuomainen’s bracingly strange and funny crime novel Little Siberia. Which is not to say it’s derivative—they just share a vibe. Tuomainen has his own distinctive voice and style, which juxtaposes the banality of violence and greed with cosmic questions about spirituality and religion.
The book begins with a bang. A roaring-drunk former rally driver is flying along an icy road in the remote village of Hurmevaara, in eastern Finland, when he’s hit with something more epic than a D.U.I.—a meteorite crashes through the roof of his car and lands on the passenger seat. The meteorite, estimated to be worth over a million dollars, is taken to the town’s War Museum for safekeeping until it can be moved to Helsinki. Its presence sets off a collective madness in the small town, just next door to Russia. Part of the population thinks the rock is rightfully theirs, while others pursue their own odd agendas.
Hurmevaara’s pastor, an Afghan-war veteran, volunteers to guard the meteorite at night. His faith is being tested on a number of fronts, including the marital one, when he learns his wife is pregnant with what can’t possibly be his child. He is, as he says, “not in the best spiritual place,” and the universe, which includes an enormous, homicidal Russian, a local femme fatale, and assorted other villains, does seem to be against him. Engaged in a solitary struggle to protect the meteorite while fending off poisonous thoughts about his wife, the pastor achieves a quixotic nobility as he risks life and limb to nail the thieves in subzero cold.
Tuomainen has a direct and potent style that grazes the absurd; his short sentences pack a real punch, as do his characters. A tip of the woolly hat to the translator, David Hackston, for achieving some kind of literary mind meld with the author. Little Siberia is served at the perfect temperature.
How to describe Erast Fandorin—detective, diplomat, martial artist, linguist, master of disguise? He is all of these, and his creator, Boris Akunin, has sent the dashing Russian polymath racing across continents and oceans to solve some byzantine cases in this imaginative historical series. Think of Fandorin as an International Man of Mystery, Imperial Russia division.
She Lover of Death finds Akunin working with a more minimalist palette than usual. We’re in Moscow at the turn of the 20th century, where a secret suicide club known as the Lovers of Death is losing control of its mission. According to the rules set down by Prospero, the group’s enigmatic founder, the lucky seeker of oblivion is to be identified during a séance, then receive three signs before getting final permission to depart this world. But members of the club, mostly misguided young poets and artists, have begun to die without authorization, drawing the alarm of the authorities, who ask Fandorin to infiltrate the club to determine whether the deaths are indeed suicides or actual murders. Posing as a dandyish, self-described “seeker of thrills,” Fandorin encounters Columbine, formerly the moonfaced Masha from Irkutsk, who has moved to the big city and re-styled herself as a flamboyant, snake-adorned provocateur. Columbine puts on a fearless front, but even she is beginning to feel threatened by the grim turn of events at the club. It’s up to Fandorin to pull back the curtain, but not before engaging in a high-stakes battle of wits with a sinister master manipulator.
She Lover of Death is not the ideal introduction to Fandorin, who slips into his undercover identity for most of the book, but it does provide an alluring taste of the series’s delights. There’s plenty to enjoy, including Akunin’s satirical portrait of Moscow’s artsy fringe and the malicious sleights of hand performed by Prospero. The work of Grigory Chkhartishvili—Akunin’s real name—is published somewhat erratically in the U.S., so the appearance of this book, originally published in 2001, is especially welcome.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City