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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Tales That Linger in Your Mind and Take up Residency in Your Soul

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As law enforcement across the country undergoes a reckoning, the police novel — a stalwart for 70 years — has entered an uncomfortable stage of transition. The slow timetable of book publishing means we’ll have to wait a few more years to see if, and how, this genre will evolve.

For now, though, I appreciate Robert Reuland’s attempt to grapple with hot-button issues in his new novel, BROOKLYN SUPREME (Overlook, 362 pp., $27).

Will Way lives and breathes Brooklyn, and, as an N.Y.P.D. union rep, he spends his days aiding troubled cops — particularly those, like Georgina Lee, who have shot and killed Black teenagers based on outsize in-the-moment fear. The story threads its way through media circuses, internal investigations, conflicts of interest, unexpected court proceedings and surprising links to Way’s younger years and lost loves.

The resulting panorama, informed by Reuland’s work as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, drips with cynicism: “Truth don’t matter in Brooklyn Supreme, not in the end. All that matters is the lie they catch you on.”

Kathleen Kent found a different path to the contemporary procedural: Devote more energy to the detective’s personal quests, and raise the stakes to extra-melodramatic proportions. Betty Rhyzyk, the Brooklyn-born, Dallas-based detective sergeant who featured in two earlier novels, returns one final time in THE PLEDGE (Mulholland, 387 pp., $28). Rhyzyk has been through all manner of physical and mental hell, her body stretched beyond limits, her capacity to love and to hate sorely tested.

New tribulations include parenting responsibility — she and her longtime partner, Jackie, are caring for a baby whose teenage mother has vanished — as well as a narcotics queenpin with increasingly horrific ways of exacting revenge and the teenager’s wealthy stepfather, who won’t let anything impede his quest to gain custody of the baby. When it seems as if Rhyzyk is at the end of one rope, along comes another lifeline that she can burn through in short order as well.

I read this book in a compulsive binge because it felt physically painful to be away from the story until it was over. Betty Rhyzyk won’t soon be forgotten by crime readers, but after a trilogy’s worth of trauma and violence, she deserves to rest and heal from the hardships her creator put her through.

Surendranath Banerjee has endured many trials as half of the crime-solving duo of Abir Mukherjee’s detective series, set in Raj-era Calcutta. He’s had his name butchered by foes and friends — including his partner, Sam Wyndham — his identity erased, his professional instincts disregarded. All pale in comparison to what he faces in THE SHADOWS OF MEN (Pegasus Crime, 334 pp., $25.95), where “the authorities I had worked for and had served selflessly for more than five years were the same authorities who would now put me on trial.”

Suspicion turns to Banerjee when a prominent theologian is murdered and his house set on fire, and someone faintly resembling the detective is seen in the vicinity. “I didn’t kill him,” Banerjee assures Wyndham.

“And the building? You didn’t try to torch that?”

“No … I mean yes, I may have set it alight, but not to. …”

Wyndham believes his partner, but the danger is palpable and real; if Banerjee is convicted of this crime, he may very well be hanged. To unwind the mystery, Banerjee must flee Calcutta for Bombay in search of the source of this immense betrayal, and a different future if detective work is no longer on the table.

Mukherjee, as he has in previous series installments, paces this story with sure-footed ease. But there is a bitter aftertaste that lingers even more strongly, because the root of Banerjee’s discontent is the scourge of colonialist attitudes, and that cannot be washed away in a tidy resolution.

The short story is a cornerstone of the genre, but time and economics have eroded most of the available mystery magazines.Anthologies have stepped in to fill the void, with uneven results: The best of them either advance an argument or cohere around a unified purpose — or, ideally, both.

MIDNIGHT HOUR (Crooked Lane, 321 pp., paper, $16.99), edited by Abby L. Vandiver (previously reviewed here under her pseudonym, Abby Collette), presents 20 stories by authors of color. “They are voices that will linger long in your mind. Take up residency in your soul. Add a new, extra dimension to your peripheral vision and continue to walk just beneath the surface of your skin,” Stephen Mack Jones writes in his introduction.

The stories, by the likes of Tracy Clark, Raquel V. Reyes and David Heska Wanbli Weiden, reflect the breadth and depth of talent among this crime-writing cohort.

There are more hits than misses. Two stories stand out in particular: Faye Snowden’s “Chefs,” which evokes James M. Cain’s tone and Stanley Ellin’s fiendish mind; and “The Search for Eric Garcia,” by E.A. Aymar, equal parts formally inventive and emotionally devastating. Vandiver has assembled a group of writers whose careers I will eagerly follow.

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