The Accident by Linwood Barclay read by Peter Berkrot

A bouquet of accidents pop up at the beginning of the story: a cab crash in Manhattan, a car crash in Darien, Connecticut, an overdose in Mitford…For the rest of this story, the notion of accident is under erasure.  What after all is an accident? Is the housing crisis an accident? Is the use of sub-paar Chinese building materials substituted for the good American stuff an accident?

Everywhere in the background is the restless problematic of wives and husbands struggling to maintain their position in a post-pastural not quite upper suburban middle class. .. An accidental class, in an accidental economy.

As in other Linwood Barclay tales the wife is either dead, missing or dissimulating: here the dead wife has been found inexplicably drunk behind the wheel of a crashed SUV. Husband and daughter are gobsmacked. Who was she if she was an alcoholic?

Who was his wife? Who were her friends? Their husbands? Their neighbors? Doubt turns all things ordinary into mysteries, even in Connecticut.

A House Divided by Mike Lawson read by Joe Barrett

Again, we have Washington with its burials and its laudations betrayals become elegy — where the ones praising the dead are also their executioners.

A Roman tradition carried brightly on by moral gamesmen, whose empires are supported by three rhetorical questions:

  • Is it ethical for men in power, men entrusted by their countrymen with that power, to go outside the law if the situation demands it?
  • Is it reasonable to expect the average citizen to understand what needs to be done?
  • Is it logical to expect self-serving politicians to act on what needs to be done?

Moreover, there was no way that 16 divergent and competing intelligence agencies, “agencies staffed by bureaucrats who protected their rice-bowls more fiercely than any tigress ever protected a cub, would give up their authority, their autonomy, or their budgets for the sake of ‘cooperation'”. The spineless reports of fat blue ribbon commissions are produced for citizens only.

For gentlemen spies, political heirs of the original gentleman spy, Bill Donovan, positioned in between bureaucrats assigned to defend an agency’s dwindling budget, and ‘managers’ who, in line with current American management practices, did not really understand what they managed and hence had no idea what their technical or human instruments were overseeing, security overrides legality.

Watergate by Thomas Mallon read by Joe Barrett

Imagine yourself in every drawing room of mature Washingtonian society, amidst the pouffy hair, the polka dot dresses, the over-used jokes, and the starchy  defensive hawkishishness of 1973. The wives, too, are overused. Pat Nixon is brittle; Dorothy, wife of the ex CIA agent and Watergate burgler E. Howard Hunt, is venomous, and Alice Longworth, the grand dame of political salons, is too old to fail, having known everything and outlived everyone.

Indeed, in a Washington where the only thing that glitters are Mrs. Longworth’s yellow teeth, “like the ruins of the ripples at twilight”, the political plotting is staged as a vague shadow dance of female opinion. Nixon’s confidante, Nixon’s wife, Nixon’s secretary position the dark, vague heavies surrounding the President along their personal moral continuum.

Nixon is, for Alice Longworth, “the darkest of dark horses”, a

…misanthrope in a flesh-presser’s profession, able to succeed from cunning and a talent for denying reality at close range.

For Rose Mary Woods, who never wanted anything but “what Ann Whitman, Ike’s head girl, had once had,” Nixon’s downfall began in the elevator of the Waldorf the morning after the ’68 election.

Riding down to his press conference, the boss had told her that Haldeman would control all access to him after the inauguration. She’d practically seen stars when he said it, ….he never budged from the structure Haldeman had sold him on, a chain of command that made sure he never had to hurt anyone’s feelings at least face-to-face…

This is why by 1972, the White House is

crawling with a second generation of admen and junior executives… good-looking dumb-bunnies like Magruder who provided Richard Nixon with a whole new cloud of insulation, like those little Styrofoam peanuts Rose’s mail-order knick-knacks came packed in.

House Justice by Mike Lawson read by Joe Barrett

Mike Lawson is very very good. He is even better read by Joe Barrett.

De Marco is a ‘bagman’ with a law degree, who even passed the Virginia Bar but never practiced law, whose happy aunt or godmother got him a job working for the fat, charming, lecherous, Speaker of the House whom he hates, respects, and obeys. De Marco has an office in the sub-basement of the capital, a lineage in the sub-basement of the Mob, and a salary that is off the books of the politician who employs him; he is a “left-hand man” (see Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga) who leaves no fingerprints.

In House Justice, he investigates the leak of classified information leading to the death of a CIA agent in Iran. And he knows where to go to get his information.

In any prison movie ever made there’s a guy called a scrounger. The scrounger can get you anything you want:

De Marco figured all the good prison scroungers had been New York hotel concierges, before they got sent up the river. You want tickets to a show? No sweat. Seats behind homeplate at Yankee Stadium? Piece of cake. A girl? Well, I don’t know nothin’ about no girls, pal, but for fifty bucks I’ll bet a blonde named Tiffany comes knockin on your door at 10:00.

Tony, the concierge, gives de Marco lots of information. Later, Tony gets motivated to give up his information to a less diplomatic thug who pushes him behind a dumpster…
.

..so he was eye level with a line of graffitti that read: Jesus Loves You. Tony’s first thought was: if he loves me so much why is there a gun stuck in my back? But his next thought was that he hadn’t been to confession in years…

See, this is street smart, thug-happy, punchy, yes, punchy dialogue that moves plot… , typically a Washingtonian plot involving some kind of treachery by the bad guys in government, which, given the political sympathies of the author, are typically Republicans.

In Lawson-land, when Democrats are tainted by naughtiness (House Secrets), they are dosed with a predictable erotomania.

The party spin is sentimental, near-sighted and dopey.  In House Rules, perfectly innocent men and boys of the Muslim faith are forced into terrorist-like acts by American social prejudice, unjust racial profiling, and bent Republican Congressmen. Acha. Coming installments will no doubt re-stage evil, bumbling Republicans in villainous acts of wiretapping, election-fixing, and Floridian Arithmetic.

Wait for it.

Ah, Treachery! by Ross Thomas read by Frank Muller

The salad dressing was the only one Partain ever used: “9 parts olive oil, one part red wine vinegar, vinegar soaked salt, ground black pepper and more garlic than most people liked.” Write this down. Ross Thomas’ recipes are rare, legendary and authoritative. As are his stories, his characters, and his dialogue.

‘What did you do in the army for fun when you weren’t soldiering?
‘I read a lot.’
‘What?’
‘European history. When I got to World War I, I always stopped.’
‘Why?’
‘Because I already knew how it would end  in 1945.’
‘That was the end of World War II, not I.’
‘Was it?’

Not only authoritative but establishing authority, establishing themselves as authorities.

When he was soldiering, Edd (“Two-Dees”) was Infantry in Vietnam, then the States, then Germany, then Central America (“…not dangerous for an observer.”).  After 19 years he beat up his superior officer and was discharged for the good of the service without a pension or PX privileges. The loss of PX privileges was annoying.

Now Two-Dees is staying in a condo on Wiltshire Boulevard, where he is observing the pretty daughter of Millicent Altford in between jobs and/or lovers. Ask any political geographer to map out D.C. in L.A, and he’ll draw you the route to the 86 volumes of Who’s Who in Millicent Altford’s study, in a luxury building named after a failed British prime minister.

The very femdom, very wily, not so old political rainmaker Millicent Altford is however hiding out in her own ‘significant money salon’ in the extravagantly elegant wing of the exclusive “Olympia” Hospital a few blocks east of Century City, for which she herself raised the seed money. Gourmet meals  and a French menu every morning.

Partain entered Millicent Altford’s hospital room and found her sitting in an armchair, wearing a smoke-grey silk suit, herlong legs tucked back to the left and crossed at the ankles. On her feet were black suede pumps with two inch heels that matched her purse. Next to her feet was a worn black leather suitcase with silver fittings that looked both old and expensive.

Edd Twodees gets shot just before they’re scheduled to fly from LAX. Millicent buys him something temporary to wear at the airport; he takes off the nice blue suit with the bullet holes and says:

‘What I do with my shirt, tie and coat?’
‘I’ll take care of them.’
He handed them over and watched with dismay as she dropped all three into a nearby trash container.
‘That coat could have been re-woven,’ he said when she returned.
‘I told you; we’ll buy you new stuff in Washington. A nice top coat from Burberry’s, some suits and a couple of jackets and pants from Brooks Brothers or Niemann’s.’
‘You ever been inside a J.C. Penny’s?’
‘Not in 42 years,’ she said.

When she is not giving orders, putting together “soft money” and “bundling”, Millicent Altford gives congressmen lectures in the ancient history of campaign financing.

It was a typical campaign office for the times. One big room, lots of desks, typewriters, ringing phones, hot as hell, noisy… and then there was this 50 year old slob sitting behind one of the desks..and a red headed guy. I tell the slob my name and that I want to help out in the campaign and he tells me that they aren’t hiring…The red head of course is Joey Sizemore. He takes me outside where we catch a cab and head for the old Morrison Hotel that they tore down years ago. We ride up to the 11th floor and go into a big room that has two desks, two phones on each desk, a secretary called Norma who’s at least 60, and nothing else. Joey introduces me to Norma. Tells me that she used to be a senior long distance telephone operator with SouthWestern Bell, uses a key to open a desk drawer and hands me a typewritten list of names with addresses and phone numbers thats about an inch thick. It was the fat cat list. Every Democrat in the country who had an estimated net worth of $100,000 or more.. which would be around a million today… All I had to do was call each name and talk whoever answered into contributing a minimum of $1000 to the Stevenson campaign. Norma had this sexy contralto voice and placed each call person to person working east to west — all operator assisted then, no touch tone, no direct dialing.. ancient times. I asked Sizemore what to say. He said since I was in the ad business I’d think up something. There were almost 2000 names on that list and we called every damn one of ’em. A lot of ’em twice.
‘What was your batting average?’, the congressman asked.
‘.593′ That’s when I learned what makes people give money to politicians.
The congressman smiled: “is it a secret?’
She shook her head, “Fear. And Flattery.”
Still smiling, the congressman said: “What about hope for a better tomorrow?”
“Forget hope,” she said.

 

A Little Death in Dixie by Lisa Turner read by Jeffrey Kafer

Big sisters play dirty. So do cops, wives, mothers. So do cities… like Memphis. As always the best mysteries revolve around the murder of a city. And this is one of the best: gritty, angry, twisted…Mississippi Noir.

The giant A & W Root Beer mug shimmered over the rooftop of a roadside stand. The sign’s brown paint, chipped by the weather, left silver patches gleaming in the sun. Broken neon tubing dangled. The mug rocked against sagging guidewires. The sign was a lot like Memphis, seductive, old, with hints of grandeur and an aura of risk.

Mercy is a pastry chef with a  bad scar on  her left cheek, an alcoholic mother, a bitch-sister; she has come back to Memphis to re-visit with family.

Billy is a cool white cop  who grew up singing in black choirs:  poor but good. He protected women who scrubbed their old oak floors with lemon wax, kept their door transoms shiny, and got beaten: weekly, on schedule.

Billy understood what the house meant to a woman like her. She was the same as the women he’d known growing up on the back roads of Mississippi. Hard work, little money, poor education. Not a single step in their lives made easy. She wanted a few nice things in her life and some respect.

His partner, Lou, is an angry 61 year old superhero on the Memphis Homicide Squad. He lives in a hovel which is empty except for “a lawn chair, a TV and a lamp made from a bronzed figure of a nude woman with a clock in her belly.” His refrigerator contains “Wonder Bread, Velveeta, grape Jelly.” Jack Daniels is under  the sink. When Lou  ends up in the Mississippi River after a storm, Billy finds out that his partner wasn’t a very nice man. And that Memphis wasn’t a very nice city.

No, the South, this South is not a nice place, not a pretty place, nothing like sweet tea and charity balls. Its conversations are short and ugly. Its humor is nasty. Its favoritism is thick, and propped by greed, not family values. There is enough hurt to go around and everybody gets seconds…

Special heads up to Jeffrey Kafer who brings back Frank Muller with a vengeance. Thanks.

 

The Bone House by Brian Freeman read by Joe Barrett

There is something annoying, something unsettling, something demoralizing about a story in which  all the women are either murder victims,  embittered but useless mothers, faithful, ineffectual wives, or sexually charged students with dancers’ bodies. Annoying, too, is witnessing an entire small town turn against an innocent man and his brainy wife, both outsiders, neither one well-liked.  Into this remote and stupid Wisconsin town drives a detective from Naples, with one earring, spiky hair, a trust fund, (but no lap top), whose  actress mother taught him that “if someone was moving their lips in Los Angeles, they were probably lying.”  This assemblage of unpleasantness doesn’t stop one from wanting to find out who done it.

Red Hat Society’s Queens of Woodlawn Avenue by Regina Hale Sutherland read by Staci Snell

Imagine three divorced fairy godmothers wearing red hats feeding you yellow cake, laying out your new life, and getting you ready for the charity ball by teaching you how to play bridge. There you have it. The almost penniless newly divorced matron with good manners sets up a home decorating business, stops crying, and learns to negotiate and win.

Sentenced to Death by Lorna Barrett read by Cassandra Campbell

Some divorced women move to New Hampshire and open bookstores. Tricia is a picky, possessive, mulish melancholic who stumbles into murder and mayhem in the most pastoral and unexciting of New England towns, re-invented as “Booktown” for its a sweet new row of shops, including the Haven’t Got a Clue Bookstore, the Happy Domestic, the By Hook or By Book, and other simulacra of quaintness. It is not surprising that a population of displaced, overeducated crybabies inhabiting an imitation of a old English village should have its criminals. Or that its criminals should have the same tired motives, the same drab archive of excuses, the same greedy and disingenuine personalities as their urban derivation. Or that its murders should be solved by the overcurious spinsterish busybody that runs the vintage mystery bookstore.

The Copper Beech by Maeve Binchy read by Barbara Caruso

A Bruegellian world of busy little people working very hard and magical children repeating absolutely useless gestures: marvellous Maeve Binchy.

Eddie’s dressmaker mother is surrounded by patterns and perpetually draped in some nearly finished garment as she sews and listens to the radio. “Let’s just agree that he didn’t keep his part of the bargain, he didn’t look after his wife and son, he doesn’t deserve our interest.” It is said that his father left in a spectacularly noisy manner: “there was nearly as much noise as the night Ted Barton was thrown out” and “it will be another case of Ted Barton, with the suitcase flung down the case after him”.

For his tenth birthday Eddie gets a game of blo football “because his mother had heard from the Dunns in the shop that it was what every child wanted this year and she had paid it off over 5 weeks”. Eddie plays it on the floor of his bedroom because the table downstairs is needed for the sewing machine, even though he “secretly thought it was silly and tiring,and that there was too much spit trying to blow a paper ball through paper tubes, it got chewy and soggy.” Eddie wonders about his father.

“That night Eddie wrote a letter to his father. He told about the day and the pressed flowers…he told his father that there was a big wedding in the next town, and that his mother had been asked to do not only the bride’s dress but the two bridesmaids and the mother and the aunt of the bride as well….And that his mother said it came just in the nick of time because something needed to be done to the roof and there wasn’t enough money to pay for it. Then he read that last bit again and wondered would his father would think it was a complaint… He didn’t want to annoy him now that he had just found him. With a jolt Eddie realized that he hadn’t found his father. He was only making it up…. He crossed out the bit about the roof costing money and left in the good news about the wedding dresses… He thought that maybe his father might be in England. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if he met him by accident over there in a good job with prospects?…

Eddie writes his father often that year: about Bernard Shaw, who just died, and who his teacher told him was a great writer but had been a bit against the church, and asks him why someone would be against the church.

His father didn’t answer of course because the letters were never sent. There was no where to send them to.