I know it’s summertime and some of you may be looking for foofy beach reads to accompany your all-day rosé on the chaise longue. Not to be unkind, but this column is not for you. All four of these books stir up strong emotions and should be read sitting upright while drinking double espressos. Consider trigger warnings issued.
The most challenging is Joyce Carol Oates’s Babysitter, which explores a place where dread and fascination converge in late-70s America. As we’re introduced to the outwardly serene but privately suffocating life of Hannah Jarrett, a wealthy housewife in suburban Detroit, news is spreading about a serial killer of young boys nearby known as “Babysitter.”
Chapters are told from different characters’ points of view, but most prominent is the flawlessly turned-out Hannah, who is yanked out of her sleepwalker’s existence by a brief encounter at a benefit. A brush of the wrist from a dark, cruelly handsome man leads to a series of brutal sexual encounters in a luxury hotel. Hannah becomes obsessed with the man, known to her only as “YK,” and can’t stay away even though their liaison crosses a dangerous line.
Babysitter is a menacing but indistinct presence throughout, more a symbolic 70s bogeyman than an integral part of the book. Other plot strands represent a mighty effort to take on all manner of social ills: racism in the police shooting of an innocent Black man; child abuse under the auspices of a depraved Catholic priest; misogyny and rape in Hannah’s degradation at the hands of YK; class disparity in Hannah’s treatment of her Filipino housekeeper; and so on.
As Oates guides us through this hellscape, her prose veers from inspired to lurid, and her use of repetition can be alternately hypnotic and tedious. The abundance of parentheticals is mystifying. There’s also some time-shifting, which is effective but requires diligent focus. Whatever the book’s flaws, Oates’s unflinching compulsion to go there taps into something powerful and disturbing. I can see a book club discussion of this coming to blows. And possibly some hurled rosé.
Joyce Carol Oates’s Babysitter explores a place where dread and fascination converge in late-70s America.
Robert Pobi’s Do No Harm—an ironic title given how much harm is done in the course of this book—delivers a different kind of charge. Intellectual firepower displaces action-figure heroism in the startling form of Dr. Lucas Page, an astrophysicist and occasional F.B.I. collaborator who is missing a couple of limbs and an eye.
With his prostheses and false eyeball, Page is the kind of guy people try not to stare at while marveling that he is even alive. He is also the smartest person in any room and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But none of this keeps him from being a loving father to five children and husband of a surgeon at a top New York City hospital.
It’s in that capacity that he attends a fundraiser where an in memoriam tribute begins to nag at him. Is he the only one who notices the disproportionate number of his wife’s colleagues who have died under unusual circumstances in the past year? He does the math, as astrophysicists do, and finds that it’s statistically impossible for these to be accidents. His certainty takes him back to the F.B.I., who agree to let him investigate the 30 suspicious deaths.
Once a couple of the murderers have been identified, Page is stymied, because they have no connection to their doctor victims, thereby eliminating motive, and these ordinary people with no previous history of violence refuse to talk. Trying to establish them as a group with a raison d’être is pure frustration.
It might help to mention that we are not in the real world here but a giddy, adrenalized alternate realm where a parade of expensive cars are wrecked, some seriously skilled bad guys are dispatched with relative ease, a landmark is destroyed, and … five children coexist happily in an Upper East Side brownstone.
But Page’s explanation for the nature of randomness is as exciting as the car chases, which is what’s so great about this book. With its perfectly judged pacing, zingy dialogue, and ingenious plot, Do No Harm will, in Page’s parlance, make your neurons sizzle. It’s statistically improbable for Robert Pobi to do so many things right, but, as this book proves, not impossible.
Robert Pobi’s Do No Harm has an ironic title, given how much harm is done in the course of the book.
The opening of Ramona Emerson’s Shutter should come with a warning label. The heroine, Rita Todacheene, is a forensic photographer who has arrived at the scene of a horrible incident where a young woman has either jumped or been pushed off an overpass into freeway traffic. A couple hours on the asphalt at night have turned her body into roadkill, and Rita’s inventory of all 75 scattered pieces is pretty stomach-turning.
After five years of documenting crime scenes for the Albuquerque Police Department, Rita is still not inured to it. Ever since she was a child, she has been able to see dead people, a gift which isolated her on the Navajo reservation where she grew up. Navajos have traditionally held strong beliefs and fears around death and the afterlife, which made the strange little girl a bit of a pariah. In the wider world, her visions are diagnosed as hallucinations and signs of mental illness. So, she learned to keep her talents secret, doing her best to shut out the ghosts who appear at work, clamoring for her help.
The opening of Ramona Emerson’s Shutter should come with a warning label.
Her strategy isn’t working, though. The woman from the bridge is a particularly obstreperous spirit who torments Rita, insisting that she was pushed and demanding justice. This is the last thing she needs, but the furious phantasm will not be denied, and Rita reluctantly looks into her story, which turns out to be part of something much larger, involving drug cartels and corrupt cops.
I hope the gruesome bits and paranormal underpinnings don’t sound too sensationalistic, because Shutter is not that kind of book. Emerson, who is herself Diné (another term for Navajo) and a former forensic photographer, takes great care in shaping Rita’s character and giving it context. She warmly evokes the girl’s childhood with her grandmother, her youthful love of photography, and her early realization that her gift—or curse—would always set her apart. Rita is a starkly compelling figure, and she, combined with the cacophonous voices of the dead, makes this debut novel a strange and potent brew.
Emerson’s book is a bracing contemporary complement to the work of Tony Hillerman, whose breakout novel, Skinwalkers (1986), which introduced the team of Navajo Nation policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, looked at how traditional witchcraft could translate into murder.
It has held up strongly over the decades, due to Hillerman’s superlative mystery chops, timeless depiction of the American Southwest, and the pairing of Leaphorn and Chee, two contrasting but deeply appealing characters. Dark Winds, a new AMC series based on two other Hillerman novels, debuted in June and could earn him a new generation of fans.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City