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First Clue - The Innocent One by Lisa Ballantyne, The Lindbergh Nanny by Mariah Fredericks, A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley, All the Dangerous Things by Stacy Willingham

This week, alongside mysteries and thrillers, I’m rereading Michael Pollan’s classic The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The central question of the book is, with so many choices, how do you decide what to eat? Ethical questions abound as well as ones regarding taste and nutrition—the need for ethics and law might have developed, says Pollan, because we can eat animals and even humans, making boundaries necessary. Similar dilemmas come up for readers, of course, though with thankfully fewer life-and-death repercussions. There’s just so much out there. What do you pick?
Which brings me to a dilemma raised on Goodreads about one of the books we covered last week, Mina Hardy’s We Knew All Along. If a character is unlikable, and I say so, is that a negative review? I don’t think it necessarily is. And if you read a review that says a book’s characters aren’t likable, should you add it to your omnivorous reading diet? Well, why not? We’ve all come across fantastically written characters who are horrible people (and lovable characters stuck in bad books).
Some of the best-written characters in literature are loathsome, probably most famously Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and, more recently, Stephen King’s Jack Torrance, the character played by Jack Nicholson in the movie version of The Shining. Mentioning these characters’ awfulness wouldn’t be trashing the book (not that Nabokov or King are hanging on for my opinion anyway!), but I hesitate to mention that a character is mean or otherwise just ugh, because too many readers won’t look beyond that. I’m thinking we need to change this convention. So, let me add to my review of We Knew All Along. The characters were horrible! You wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with them in real life! And that’s what made the book.—Henrietta Verma

The Aftermath
Ballantyne, Lisa. The Innocent One. November. 352p. Pegasus.
When a child is tried for killing another child and is found not guilty, what’s next? For Sebastian Croll, English law means he’s anonymous and allowed to go on with his life. When he’s wanted for questioning in another killing years later, Daniel Hunter, his solicitor in this case and the earlier one, and the main character here, promises Sebastian that so much time has passed that even the police won’t be able to access records of the previous accusation. Whether they know about that past event or not, the police aren’t dropping their suspicions easily, leading Daniel and readers into the ethical quandary regarding how much a child can be responsible for their actions and how much those past actions should matter if their adult behavior goes off the rails. Ballantyne (The Guilty One, 2022) juxtaposes the paths of two troubled boys’ lives here, with Sebastian’s the more dramatically bad version but Daniel’s own hell—the foster-care system—on display through flashbacks and his current erratic, self-destructive behavior. Can Daniel save himself and his marriage while he fights for a client he can’t believe? Ballantyne’s crisp writing makes getting to the answer a fast, absorbing trip through what happens when self-loathing and love collide.Henrietta Verma
The Trouble with Charlie
⭐Fredericks, Mariah. The Lindbergh Nanny. November. 320p. Minotaur.
Most of us are familiar with the kidnapping of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s baby, Charlie, in 1932, which was known as “the crime of the century.” So what can a fictionalized version of the events offer readers today? A whole lot more, it turns out.  Fredericks has Betty Gow, the baby’s nanny, narrate this tale, which begins with Betty’s arrival in Detroit from Scotland—in pursuit of love gone wrong—and ends several years later with her permanent return to Glasgow. Kudos to Fredericks for creating in Gow such a hugely compelling character: smart, introspective, full of humor, a loving nanny. She’s also a terrific social observer, watchful of class distinctions, and all too aware of the inequality of the sexes. The first third or so of the book builds towards the abduction of Charlie—it’s incredibly nerve racking—while the middle third is centered on the messy aftermath of the crime: the frenzied press, the myriad ransom notes, the continual interrogations by detectives. In the final third, the narrative builds again as Betty returns from Scotland to testify in the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, who was eventually convicted and electrocuted, and the courtroom drama that unfolds is nothing less than brilliant. As fans of the Jane Prescott mysteries can testify, Fredericks is especially adept at historical settings, and this book doesn’t disappoint. The Lindbergh Nanny can cross-over in all kinds of directions, and should appeal to readers of crime fiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction and those just needing a solid read. Librarians: watch the holds list on this one.—Brian Kenney
The Wild, Wild West
Smiley, Jane. A Dangerous Business. December. 224p. Knopf.
Few know that one of Jane Smiley’s earliest works, published in 1984, was a mystery called Duplicate Keys set in contemporary Manhattan. Here, Smiley returns to crime fiction, although now we are in a completely different locale: Monterey in the mid-19th century. Eliza Ripple moves from Kalamazoo to Monterey with her husband, who promptly gets killed in a bar fight, leaving her broke and unemployed—but hardly sad at her piggish husband’s demise. Days later she’s recruited by Mrs. Parks to join her brothel, and with no other resources, agrees. Mrs. Park runs a tight ship: the women see only one or two clients a day; have physical protection, in the form of a bouncer; and are able to ban men they deem risky. Throughout the book, it’s women who keep each other safe, whether through friendships or the environments they create. And for the first time in her life, Eliza has financial security. All is as well as can be expected until Eliza realizes that young women in Monterey are disappearing, and discovers their bodies in a creek outside of town. She pairs up with her buddy Jean, also a sex worker and quite likely a lesbian—she’s got a terrific wardrobe of menswear—and the two women use every resource they have, from their clients to Edgar Allen Poe’s stories of detective C. Auguste Dupin, to discover who is murdering the women of Monterey. Smiley takes time to describe the wild west and the magical beauty that surrounds her characters. But ever present is the vulnerability that women face and the need to take matters into their own hands.Brian Kenney
Nighttime Obsessions
Willingham, Stacy. All the Dangerous Things. January 2023. 336p. Minotaur.
Isabelle Drake hasn’t been able to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time for the past year. Night and day, she’s obsessed with who stole her baby son, Mason, and where he is now. She’s barely functional, but pushes on with her investigation, hounding the police for news and harassing those she finds suspicious. Her husband has had enough and taken off, leaving Isabelle to ruminate on how their romance, which started when he was her married boss, had such promise but became “like peeling back expensive wallpaper and finding black mold underneath.” Attending a true-crime conference to find more suspects, she meets a podcaster who becomes pivotal to the case, investigating alongside the distraught mother as she spirals further down into sleeplessness and murky flashbacks to a childhood of sleepwalking and family dysfunction. Willingham (A Flicker in the Dark, 2022) draws readers through dark depths into what is much more than a kidnapping tale, with a love that can push its way through even the toughest barriers. Fans of the movie “Memento” will enjoy this unstable main character and her stubborn push for the truth.—Henrietta Verma
Extra Credit
Critics Blast James Patterson For Saying White Writers Are Struggling To Get Work | HuffPost Entertainment
Author Karen Campbell on Being a Cop, Homelessness, and New Novel Paper Cup | HeraldScotland
Soon Wiley on Marrying Literary and Genre Fiction in His Debut Novel | Literary Hub
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Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney
Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney @1stClueReviews

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