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American Crime ~Fiction

If I DIE TONIGHT … Between the covers

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It is October in New York State
. ‘Fall’, of course, to the residents. Nothing much disturbs the ultra-ordinary Hudson Valley town of Havenkill, however, even the yearly arrival of the quaintly named ‘Leaf Peepers’ – folk who come to witness the glorious golds and reds of the autumn trees. Until one-rain lashed night when the rickety police station is being battered by the strong winds and the shoddily repaired roof is, once again, only just holding back the weather. Above the noise of the storm, there is a battering in the door as if the devil himself was trying to force his way in. It is not the devil, but a frantic woman:

“…make-up smeared, weeping in her bright red raincoat and rainbow-dyed hair, wet as something dredged up from the river. ‘There’s been an accident’.”

614rKZRqmfLThe woman is a former rock star, now reduced to providing the warm-up act to tribute bands in dingy roadside venues. All that Amy Nathanson has left to remind her of her brief spell of fame as ‘Aimee En’ is her former manager, now disease-stricken, and a luridly painted vintage Jaguar car, which she calls her “baby”. Now, on this grim night, as she drives home from her less than star-studded gig, she has been involved in a terrible accident. Her precious car has been hijacked but, even worse, a teenage boy lies broken in the road, run down by the car and its illicit driver.

Liam Miller is rushed to hospital. Dozens of his high school friends rush to be as close as they are allowed to his bedside but their vigil, for all its tears and prayers, is fruitless. He dies without recovering consciousness. The Havenkill police now have a rare case of murder/manslaughter on their hands, and the community – parents and youngsters – are plunged into a frenzy of speculation about the identity of the hooded teenager who stopped Amy Nathanson on the pretence of selling her drugs then mugged her and drove off in her car, leaving Liam Miller – who Nathanson thinks tried to come to her rescue – at death’s door by the roadside.

This superb thriller is peopled with strongly drawn characters. Pearl Maze is one of the police officers investigating the death of Liam Miller. She began her career in the nearby city of Poughkeepsie, but a tragic event from her childhood caused her to be victimised by her fellow officers, and she is trying to build a new life out ‘in the sticks’. The Reed family, mother Jackie and sons Wade and Connor, are central to the story. Jackie is a divorcee trying to hold down a job as a realtor, while trying to be both mother and father to her boys. She is driven to Xanax by the behaviour of the older son, Wade. His moods and unpredictability are far worse than the usual hormonal torment of teenage boys. What is going on in his secret life? Where was he on the night that Liam Miller died? We see Amy Nathanson, for all her weaknesses and hankering after faded glory, as a genuinely troubled woman cast adrift in a sea of her own insecurities and quiet desperation.

Alison GaylinAlison Gaylin (right) knows full well that every human interaction in the modern world – birth, death, triumph, failure, joy and misery – has to play out on social media, and so it is after the death of Liam Miller. We see the messages and memes, the grief and the anger, flash around the Havenkill cyberspace as the speculation about the identity of Liam’s killer intensifies. Even the makeshift shrine outside Liam’s family home is dwarfed by the virtual tribute page set up by his parents.

The plot is beautifully laid out to lead us first in one direction, and the another. Two thirds of the way through the book I began to infer just a hint of the truth about Liam Miller’s death, but I would never have guessed the real reason behind Wade Reed’s refusal to absolve himself from the crime – Gaylin waves her magic wand and carries off a show-stopping piece of literary theatre. If I Die Tonight is published by Arrow, and is available now on Kindle. It will be out in paperback at the end of December, and in hardback in 2018.

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THE SECRETS ON CHICORY LANE …Between the covers

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Shelby Truman is a highly successful romantic novelist tapping out stories involving her heroine Patricia Harlow. After forty two novels, the public shows no sign of losing its appetite for the sultry Patricia and her ability to choose precisely the wrong kind of man for her peace of mind and blood pressure. It’s a grey Chicago morning, and Truman is taking a deep breath and trying type something – anything – which will trigger the latest episode of inflamed passions and yearning bodies, when she receives a piece of registered mail which her assistant, Billy, has just signed for. She is used to convincing her readers that Patricia’s heart has ‘missed a beat’, but now fiction becomes reality.

“The return address at the top of the envelope indicates that the sender is Robert Crane Esq. of Limite, Texas. I know the name. Eddie’s attorney. A twinge of anxiety starts deep in my chest. I’d been trying not to think about Eddie, but that’s impossible this week.

The thing is, I’ve always thought about Eddie. We go way, way back, to when we were children living in Limite.”

Chicory LaneEddie is Eddie Newcott, the boy who used to live across the street in Chicory Lane, Limite. The boy who was just a bit different from all the other kids at school. The kid whose dad was a rough and abusive oilfield mechanic. The kid whose mom turned to the bottle to escape her violent husband and the beatings he handed out to their only child. But that was then. Now sees Eddie fallen on hard times. Times so hard that he achieved brief notoriety in the tabloid press, and has now been sentenced to death by lethal injection for murdering his pregnant girlfriend, slashing her open, dragging the foetus out and then arranging the two corpses on his front lawn, posed in an obscene mockery of a Nativity tableau. And it was Christmas Eve.

“EVIL EDDIE…” …”SATANIST IN GRUESOME RITUAL..” … ‘SUSPECT CLAIMS TO BE THE DEVIL …”

With these headlines dancing before her eyes, Truman reads that all efforts to appeal for clemency on the grounds of insanity have failed, and that Eddie Newcott will die in four days time. As one of his last requests, the condemned man has asked for a visit from Shelby Truman.

What follows is a wonderfully written and heartbreaking account of the bond between Eddie and Shelby. It is as good a coming-of-age novel as I have read for many a year, but Benson’s skill as a storyteller doesn’t stop there. He delivers the poignancy and unbearable sensitivity of first love and sexual awakening. His account of how children escape from the shackles slapped on by their parents is masterly. Sometimes these shackles are forged from too much love, while with other children, the shackles are tempered in the fires of cruelty and hatred. There is also a very clever murder mystery, which isn’t resolved until the last few pages, and then the resolution brings only heartbreak.

I am never entirely sure what a ‘literary novel’ is, but if it consists of elegant writing, a fine ear for dialogue and a gimlet eye for the painful inconsistencies of human behaviour, then The Secrets On Chicory Lane ticks that box too.

RaymondBensonLike Shelby Truman, Raymond Benson (right) is a highly successful writer. He has written thrillers under his own name, most notably his Black Stiletto Saga, and has also written novels based on video games. He has taken up the baton from authors who are no longer with us, like Tom Clancy, and has written several James Bond stories which have either been based on established screenplays – like Die Another Day – or standalone original stories such as The Man With The Red Tattoo.

The Secrets On Chicory Lane is published by Skyhorse Publishing, and is available for pre-order.

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