Truth is Stranger than Fiction
International settings? Check
Mysteries to be solved? Check
Absolutely true? Check
These non-fiction titles read like the best international thrillers—although they are also true. These titles exemplify the saying “truth is stranger than fiction.”
The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans by Mark Jacobson begins with a surreal scenario. One of the author’s friends finds an unusual lamp for sale at a yard sale in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. When he asks its jailhouse-tatted seller what is the odd material of the shade, he’s told “It’s made from the skin of Jews.” Apparently a bit of an offbeat character himself, he immediately thinks of his journalist (and Jewish) friend Mark Jacobson, buys the lamp and sends it to him. Born post-World War II, Jacobson grew up on legends of such gruesome artifacts of the Nazis and is in turns intrigued and appalled by the item now in his possession. When DNA testing confirms it really is made of human skin, he embarks on a worldwide journey to discover its provenance and to come to grips with the legacy of cruelty that created it. Along the way he encounters a surprising variety of characters, including Holocaust historians and Holocaust deniers who both deny the very existence of such an object (albeit for very different reasons) in spite of the object sitting on their desks. What makes his investigation so compelling is not the answers he finds, but the varied responses and philosophical conundrums he encounters along the way.
When author Douglas Preston (co-author of the Agent Prendergast series) moved his family to a Tuscan villa, he had no idea of the property’s bloody past. His olive grove was the site of an infamous double murder perpetrated by the serial killer known as the Monster of Florence. The Monster of Florence was active in the Tuscan countryside from the 1960s to the 1980s and has never been caught, although several men have been charged and released. Preston teams up with Mario Spezi an Italian investigative journalist who has spent his life tracking down the killer and has his own theory of who it is. The theory hits too close to some important powerful Italians, however and Preston finds himself the target of a police investigation. Spezi is also charged with impeding the investigation and is accused of being the Monster of Florence himself! Combining the best of true crime, political intrigue and an international setting, you won’t be able to put The Monster of Florence down.
Ali and Nino by Kurban Said is a classic love story that was recently made into a film. Not much was known about its author, however, until New Yorker journalist Tom Reiss found the notebooks of Lev Nussimbaum aka Essad Bey among his former editor’s things. Lev Nussimbaum was born to a Jewish family in Baku right before the Russian Revolution. Escaping with a camel caravan, he ended up in Germany where he reinvented himself as a Muslim prince. Ali and Nino was a bestseller in Nazi Germany and he was asked to pen Mussolini’s biography…until his true identity as a Jew was discovered. Because of his subject’s reinvention of himself and obfuscation of his true origins, Reiss spent years tracking down his subject’s real life. The Orientalist is not an easy read, packed as it is with details, persons and locales, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the life of who must surely be one of history’s greatest characters.
About the Author Thrillers
What if you picked up a thriller and found it was about you?
That is the premise, more or less, of these titles. All explore to some extent the life of an author and are set in the world of modern publishing.
One of the recent crop of excellent thrillers coming from first-time female British authors, Disclaimer by Renee Knight starts out with exactly the premise described above. When documentary filmmaker Catherine Ravenscroft starts the thriller that mysteriously appeared on her bedside table, she finds it perfectly describes a dark day from her past, a day known only to her and a man who is no longer alive. This thriller gradually picks up speed as it goes and by the end you won’t be able to put it down. If you liked Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, give this one a try.
Chris Pavone’s Accident takes the premise and gives it an international spin. It opens with literary agent Isabel Reed reading a manuscript biography of a powerful media mogul that contains explosive revelations she knows will endanger lives if published. At the same time, in Europe, a CIA operative works to keep the contents of the book from being revealed. The action then switches over to the author of the biography who is hiding from his lifetime of lies. Reed and her fellow editor evade killers and try to save themselves and their ambitions. Over the course of one day, these three lives converge, ruining companies, and placing all in mortal peril.
Gregg Hurwitz is a prolific thriller writer who uses everyday situations as springboards for taut suspense. More noir than some of his other titles, Crime Writer begins with mystery author Drew Danner awakening in the hospital chained to his bed and accused of murdering his girlfriend. Acquitted by reason of temporary insanity due to a brain tumor, Danner uses his skills as a crime writer to plot the murder as it might have happened. Although the ending is less than satisfying, the tight twists and turns of the plot and the atmosphere make this an enjoyable read.
About the Author by John Colapinto is the most unlike the others in this set. More than a thriller, it is a darkly funny satire of both publishing and modern life in general. Aspiring writer, Cal Cunningham , has never put a word to the page, instead spending his days stocking books in a bookshop and nights womanizing in the clubs of New York. When his irascible roommate dies suddenly, he discovers among his effects a brilliant novel—about him! Figuring he contributed as much to the story as his deceased roommate, he publishes it to great acclaim. The second half of the books is where the thrills come in, because Cal discovers someone else knows his secret…
Free Comic Book Day!
Did you know that there is such a thing as Free Comic Book Day? I mean, it sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it is true! Really. A day when comic books are all free! All you have to do is show up. This is an all ages event. That means there will be comics for kids, teens and adults.
I have no idea which comics will be available, but I do know that you get to peruse the tables and choose your favorite.
If you want to make it even more fun, come dressed as your favorite super hero, real or made up, it’s up to you. If you choose to come in costume, you will earn a chance to win a prize! The prize is currently a mystery, but it will definitely have something to do with comics.
The free comic books will be given away on May 6th, starting at 9:00 am and will stop when they’re all gone, or at 1:00 pm. Whichever comes first.
So get out your tights and your secret identity, and get to Free Comic Book Day at the library!
Some interesting things about comic books you may not know:
The first comic book was published in Europe in 1837. The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck was written by Rodolphe Topffer, but the drawings were done by a man named Timothy Crayon. Seriously. I didn’t make that up.
Female superheroes didn’t exist until 1940. That’s when Fletcher Hanks created Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle. She was an ancient Egyptian woman who never aged and used her supernatural powers to protect the jungle and all who lived there.
William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman who used her lasso of truth to foil evil doers. Mr. Marston also created the systolic blood pressure test, which is a component of the polygraph, also known as the lie detector!
A Lama is a Buddhist spiritual teacher. In the 1940’s there was super hero called the Green Lama. He was a Buddhist monk and refused to use a weapon. One of his mystical super powers was reincarnation.
By the way, this article is written in the Comic Sans font, which is based on the lettering used in the Watchmen comics, by Dave Gibbons.
Use all your powers to get to the Antioch Public Library for Free Comic Book Day! Don’t forget your cape.
In The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders proposes that the Victorians “invented” detection—that prior to the Victorian era, murders were seldom solved except in the rare case where there was an eyewitness. Barring that eyewitness, there was little hope in even trying to solve them. Perhaps it is precisely this lack of real detectives prior to 1850 that has encouraged writers to transplant the detective mind into more ancient times and to imagine what detection would have looked like prior to the nineteenth century. There is certainly no shortage of authors who in addition to invoking the details of a bygone era, can also weave a complex mystery in that setting.
David Liss has written historical thrillers in several time periods, but my favorite books of his feature Benjamin Weaver, a smart talking, streetwise 18th century equivalent of a private eye. The first in the series, A Conspiracy of Paper, finds Weaver investigating, among other things, the murder of his estranged father, a stock-jobber on the fledgling London stock exchange. Along the way, the reader learns about the start of stocks and paper currently while following Weaver on his action-packed adventures. Weaver features in 3 books, each like this one, focusing on historical corruption and intricate period details.
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is one of my all-time favorite books and has one of the best twists at the end of any book ever. In 1633, an Oxford don is found murdered in his rooms. The story is told by 4 narrators—a medical student, the son of a traitor, a cryptographer and an archivist—each one having a different theory as to the murderer. While reading their accounts of the murder, each in a distinctive voice, we also find ourselves immersed in Restoration England and the pageant of ideas floating through the rarefied Oxford atmosphere. The ending is surprising and supremely satisfying.
Ex-Libris by Ross King is a nice follow-up to Instance of the Fingerpost because the time and setting are very similar. Isaac Inchbold is an asthmatic proprietor of a bookshop who has never been out of London. He finds himself drawn into international intrigue when he is asked to track down an elusive manuscript. Filled with arcane details of maps, ciphers, and astronomy, it is nonetheless fast paced and engaging.
Other authors to check out if you enjoy complex historical mysteries are Arturo Perez-Reverte, Ariana Franklin and Rebecca Stott.
Mystery Authors You May Not Have Heard Of
Broken Teaglass, Emily Arsenault’s debut mystery, is a captivating puzzle set in the world of dictionary publishing. When compiling dictionaries, publishers keep a file of citations chronicling the use of a word over time. In this mystery, clues have been left in these files by a former employee and are found by two new editorial assistants who work together to unravel the mystery. All of Arsenault’ s mysteries feature in-depth character development and function as character studies almost as much as mysteries. My favorite title by her is In Search of the Rose Notes which, like Teaglass, has the narrator seeking answers to a decades old crime. She has also written Miss me When I’m Gone, about a young woman investigating an unpublished manuscript by her deceased friend, as well as What Strange Creatures about a sister attempting to prove her brother’s innocence after he is accused of murder.
Tom Franklin writes intense literary mysteries set in the deep South. His most acclaimed is Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. In 1970s Mississippi, Larry and Silas are friends despite their racial and class differences. That ends the night Larry’s date disappears and he is forever suspected, but not convicted, of killing her. Silas leaves town to return 20 years later as a constable and shortly after, another girl disappears. Both men must then face their pasts. Franklin’s other books, Hell at the Breech and The Tilted World are also mysteries, but with historical settings and based on true events. Recommended for fans of Ron Rash and Dennis Lehane, Tom Franklin’s stories will stay with you long after you have finished them.
Like Franklin, Attica Locke sets her mysteries in the South and confronts matters of race and conscience. Black Water Rising, her critically acclaimed debut. Her protagonist Jay Porter is a former activist, now lawyer, who was almost convicted of murder in his younger days. Now struggling to make ends meet, he finds himself witnessing a murder that may put him and his young family in jeopardy. If you like Dennis Lehane’s description of gritty Boston, you’ll like Locke’s description of Houston in the 1980s with all its complex social issues. Her follow-up, Cutting Season, centers on Caren Gray, who manages the Louisiana plantation where she grew up and where her great great-great-grandmother was a slave. When a cane worker is found murdered, she finds out some unsettling information about the plantation owners, both past and present. In both these novels, the strong sense of place is almost better than the plot itself.