There is a ghastly undercurrent of dread running through Simone St. James’s THE BOOK OF COLD CASES (Berkley, 341 pp., $27), and it’s not because of the ghostly presence that flits in and out of the narrative.
Shea Collins — receptionist by day, true-crime blogger by night — has long been obsessed with Beth Greer, who was acquitted, as a young woman, of the grisly murders of two men in their small Oregon town. (A note left at one of the crime scenes said: “Am I bitter or am I sweet? Ladies can be either.”) Collins hopes that Greer might talk to her even though she’s never granted an interview about what happened, or didn’t happen, all those years ago. When, after a chance meeting in a doctor’s office, Greer does agree to sit down with Collins, it becomes clear that both women have a very dark connection to the crimes.
You probably won’t guess what it is, though; St. James is particularly gifted at doling out twists.
Reading Josh Weiss’s debut novel feels like riding shotgun with a friend who’s driving expertly through a winter storm. How does he avoid spinning out on the highway as he dodges one treacherous pothole after another? And how does he make it to his final destination without once white-knuckling it?
In BEAT THE DEVILS (Grand Central, 356 pp., $28), Weiss has crafted a hard-boiled alternate American history, circa 1958. Joseph McCarthy is president, Walter Cronkite and John Huston have both been murdered, Elizabeth “Black Dahlia” Short is very much alive (and a love interest), and the House Un-American Activities Committee has morphed into a not-so-secret police force. (In Los Angeles, the Echo Park library branch has been turned into their detention center, “a place where suspected Communists and deviants were taken to be processed, interrogated and, in some cases, unofficially disposed of.”) Paranoia is at a fever pitch. The L.A.P.D. detective Morris Baker, staving off memories of Holocaust horrors, must figure out who killed the journalist and the film director, even as he becomes a target of the same plot.
The whole time, I expected the novel to devolve into kitsch as the number of pulp tropes — including, of course, a femme fatale with layers of secrets — began to multiply. But Weiss creates palpable emotional depth, particularly for Baker, whose yearslong tactic of burying trauma has stopped working.