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By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Deborah Crombie, a native Texan who lives in McKinney, is the author of the popular Kincaid-James mystery series, which regularly appears on The New York Times‘ best-seller lists. The first novel was 1993’s A Share in Death; the new Kincaid-James novel, Garden of Lamentations, is the 17th in the series and will be published Feb. 7 by William Morrow.

 

Deborah Crombie 2017

Deborah Crombie at home in McKinney. PHOTO: Rex Curry, DMN

Crombie’s protagonists, Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his former investigative partner, now wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, are senior officers at the Metropolitan Police, a.k.a. Scotland Yard. Besides their police work, the two detectives also share a home, friends, several cats and dogs, and a blended family of three children. 

All of Crombie’s novels take place in London and the United Kingdom, where she lived for a time. She spends part of each year there to absorb atmosphere, do research and begin drafting the next book in her series. Crombie regularly blogs with seven other women writers of crime fiction at jungleredwriters.com. She is an avid reader who enjoys “good old-fashioned mysteries” more than psychological suspense. She also has mastered the art of brewing a perfect cup of tea.

FGarden of Lamentationsans can hear her speak Feb. 7 at Barnes & Noble on Northwest Highway as she gears up for a multicity book tour. She spoke with us first, from her historic Craftsman cottage, which she shares with with a husband, three cats and “two very demanding German shepherds.”

While your novels are police procedurals, they are very much about the characters’ personal and work relationships, as well. Ever since your protagonists got romantically involved and then married, the story arc has gotten more complex. Did you always know Gemma and Duncan would end up together?

No, I didn’t know that when I started out. One of the interesting things in the series has been the decision to marry Duncan and Gemma, because it was such a big thing. I had a lot of soul-searching, a lot of people saying, “Oh, you’ll kill the series if you have them get married.” But I thought their [married] relationship was going to be interesting, and it was going to get more complicated.

I must admit I got a little nervous about the work-related strains in Duncan and Gemma’s marriage this time around. Was it important to show the toll that the job takes? Even when you have personal knowledge of the stress … 

It’s still not easy. Especially when your partner won’t share with you. And both of them are suffering from some degree of PTSD [from the previous book’s events]. There are only about three scenes where they’re together in this book. It was hard to write because of that. Everyone’s at cross-purposes.

What is it about Duncan and Gemma that keeps you coming back to their story? I assume it’s not just contracts and publisher’s deadlines. 

No, I really love them. I love not just Duncan and Gemma, but the whole cast; I love the kids, the dogs, the cats, and Doug and Melody and Hazel. It’s like a slice of life, where I’m just dropping in on them for a week.

Writing and researching these books is a meticulous process for you, isn’t it? 

This book absolutely took me two years to write. And it was 650 pages in manuscript! Luckily my editor, Carrie Feron, is just great. I’m a slow writer … and now they’ve stretched me out to two years on my deadlines, because I am so slow and they don’t want to put up with me being late. I’m still looking for the magic bullet after 25 years.

All mystery writers have a history with Sherlock Holmes. What’s yours? 

I started reading the stories as a teenager. Now I have a Sherlock story in the new Echoes of Sherlock Holmes collection (Pegasus Books, $24.95), and Jungle Red’s Hank Phillippi Ryan and Hallie Ephron are in there, too. This is the first thing I’ve ever written in first person, and it’s a completely different character that has nothing to do with my series. Mine’s not a period Sherlock story, it’s a future Sherlock, “The Case of the Speckled Trout.” John and Mary Watson’s daughter is 18, and Sherlock, who’s her godfather, has gone missing. So she’s determined to find him. She goes to Scotland to work in a hunting lodge and find Sherlock. And the daughter is named Sherry, after her godfather, Sherlock. It was great fun.

Who are your favorite writers, besides your Jungle Red crew?
My preference for teenage reading was more fantasy and imaginative literature, T.H. White and J.R.R. Tolkien. If it had occurred to me that I’d grow up and be a writer, I probably would have thought that would be the kind of thing I would write.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Charles Todd. I love Louise Penny’s books; I love Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books. I’m a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books. And I’m a huge fan of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books. They’re set mostly in London, and they’re police procedurals, but there’s magic. That kind of goes back to my fantasy thing — everything I love.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Garden of Lamentations
Deborah Crombie
(William Morrow,  $26.99)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.dallasnews.com/arts/books/2016/10/07/victorian-london-never-looked-creepier-steven-prices-mesmerizing-gaslight

By Gaslight
Steven Price 
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  $28)

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Steven Price, author of "By Gaslight."<p><span>Stephanie Rae Hull</span><br></p><p></p>    Canadian poet Steven Price’s second novel, By Gaslight, is a dark Victorian thriller that will put paid to such fancies. If you loved big, atmospheric period mysteries such as Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx or Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, here is a novel with similar hypnotic qualities. By Gaslight draws in and magically transports the reader, as if by time machine, to another world.

Price mesmerizingly blends history and imagination in a monster of a novel – some 750 pages – filled with the lurid, Dickensian realities of a great world capital. This is a London where you might not want to linger long, even with Holmes beside you. Here is a city celebrating itself at the height of its glittering power, even as it suffocates on filthy air, drowns in fetid water and wallows in the grimmest depravities.

By Gaslight begins with William Pinkerton, elder son of famed Scottish-American detective Allan Pinkerton, threading his way through London’s slums to find a friend, one of his late father’s old agency operatives. He wants to ask Sally Porter, an ancient African-American woman, about two local criminals, Edward Shade and Charlotte Reckitt. Sally says she doesn’t know Charlotte, and as for Shade, she advises: “There ain’t no catchin a ghost, Billy.”

Meanwhile, a dapper businessman named Adam Foole arrives in Liverpool aboard the RMS Aurania. Foole is not quite what he appears, but “he had lived among the very poor and the very rich both and he knew which one he preferred.” On the Aurania, Foole meets a “burly doctor from Edinburgh,” an affable and well-read Scotsman who is interested in spiritualism and thinks detective stories would be much improved if they featured a truly intelligent detective.

“Foole had smiled at the simplicity of it but the doctor only chuckled and said Deduction, my good man, deduction.” The unnamed doctor, of course, is Doyle, who published his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887.

Like William Pinkerton, Foole heads to London in search of Charlotte Reckitt. But for him, Charlotte is not a fleeing perp; she is his lost love, the one who got away. The two of them are veterans of the flash life, operating in the shadows and pulling off nonviolent crimes in order to live well above their modest means. Though they’ve been apart for years, a letter now has called him back to her.

When Foole learns of Pinkerton’s quest for Charlotte, the men briefly become uneasy allies – after all, both want answers about her, albeit for very different reasons. Clues emerge with the investment of much shoe leather and risk-taking as the two men venture into some truly seamy parts of London.

William Pinkerton works his case with the aid of Scotland Yard, where he encounters the Met’s own Holmes in the person of a certain Dr. Breck, who has a “long thin figure [and] grey eyes” and an uncanny gift for deduction. By the end of By Gaslight, Pinkerton also has developed an eerie knack of sussing out the truth. Whether justice lies where truth does is, he discovers, another matter entirely.

Price drives his narrative at a leisurely yet relentless pace, segueing with ease to the characters’ recent past, and even further back to the American Civil War, as more and more secrets are uncovered. Every so often, he casually drops a dazzling twist for a big reveal that leads only to more questions.

Price’s writing style, with idiosyncratic punctuation eschewing quotation marks and most commas, is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. There are lines that you could swear came from Hemingway, such as: “But his brother also was a man of great physical courage and together they had ridden several times on the outlaw trail with loaded rifles and there was no man William would rather have at his back.”

In his acknowledgments, the author writes: “There are many excellent nonfiction accounts of the early Pinkerton Agency, the Civil War and the lives of criminals in Victorian London. This is not one of them.” That’s true, but By Gaslight nevertheless will make you feel as if you really had explored London in 1885.

It’s a deeply unsettling, fascinating place to visit. You probably wouldn’t want to live there.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

 

http://beta.dallasnews.com/arts/books/2016/07/29/chilling-thrilling-end-world-sunlight-pilgrims-last-one-fine-novels

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS

Special Contributor

Post-apocalyptic literature may be as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but in the postwar years it became a midcentury-modern, atomic-era genre all its own. Where it once was considered the province of pop and pulp, this branch of fiction achieved considerable critical acclaim in 2006 with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. By late 2012, The New Yorker was calling the genre “postapocalit.”

Nuclear annihilations, climatic or ecological collapses, pandemics, technological failures, fascist dystopias, zombie plagues and alien invasions: Each disaster category has its subgenres and its enthusiasts. And, with more postapocalit novels now being written by women, readers are finally getting more end-of-days stories with principal characters who are female.

In Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, melting polar icecaps have cooled the Gulf Stream, and the world may be facing a new Ice Age. Coastlines are vanishing, and the British Isles are frozen over, with temperatures already below zero and falling week by week in the autumn of 2020.
Yet humanity shuffles doggedly along; after all, the internet works, and while ever-grimmer news is being reported on TV, electric power still exists and transportation has not yet come to a standstill. How bad could things really be? Surely this is just an unusually severe winter looming.

So orphaned misfit Dylan MacRae, with nothing left for him in London, travels to a small coastSunlight Pilgrimsal town in the far north of Scotland, lugging the ashes of his mother and grandmother. He settles into his mother’s shabby old caravan and makes fast friends with his neighbors, who dominate much of the narrative: free-spirited Constance Fairbairn and her trans daughter Stella, who is almost 13 and struggling for acceptance as a goth girl who likes boys.

Not a great deal happens in The Sunlight Pilgrims, but Fagan draws an unsentimental, bleakly realistic picture of ordinary people refusing to believe the worst actually is at hand. Instead, they persist in living their everyday lives, worrying more about sex than about planetary doom, as they wait for the springtime that has always come before.

This is, we understand, how many humans cope with death: by believing that it can’t really happen. Not to us. What, after all, is the world without people in it? A depopulated Earth is almost beyond our imagining.

As intimate secrets slowly are revealed, winter closes inexorably upon Dylan and his little surrogate family. The mercury drops and drops, snows become impassable, food becomes scarce, and finally a drifting iceberg the size of a mountain looms off the Scottish coast.

Fagan is good at capturing the delusions allowing her characters to fool themselves that everything will be just fine if only they can find ways to cope until the vernal equinox, until the spring thaw that surely must arrive. This numbing, killing cold can’t last forever … can it?

***

Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel, The Last One, is the perfect postapocalit novel for people who watch reality TV. But even if you don’t follow those shows, you’ll be able to appreciate Oliva’s cleverness in creating a fictional TV series called “In the Dark” that seems every bit as “real” — that is, just as fake, manipulative and shrewdly edited — as the network shows that actually appear on our flatscreensThe Last One.

A young woman, named Sam but nicknamed Zoo on the show, is one of a dozen contestants competing for a million dollars on “In the Dark,”the series that is part Survivor, part The Amazing Race and all cynicism. Oliva invents a diverse cast of competitors and a self-obsessed host for the reality show, as well as a Greek chorus of snarky viewers commenting online (including an apparent Firefly fan using the handle LongLiveCaptainTightPants).

The reader knows something is up from the opening sentence: “The first one on the production team to die will be the editor.” But Zoo and her fellow contestants don’t have a clue that while they are busy trekking for dollars through the countryside, cut off from everything familiar, something strange and scary is happening in the outside world.

The contestants know that many of their encounters in the forest will be set dressing: scenes realistically faked for maximum impact, designed to cause emotional upset and create alarmed reactions for the cameras. But the reader begins to suspect, long before Zoo and the others do, that some of these horrors are more real than others.

Hungry, thirsty, stressed by competitive challenges and worn down emotionally and physically, the contestants are slow to realize that they are walking through unplanned dangers. Their survival game now includes uncontrollable risks that were not mentioned on the legal releases they were required to sign.

The Last One is psychological suspense skillfully played out for modern electronic media, and it just might keep you glued to your e-reader all night.

Joyce Saenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

The Sunlight Pilgrims
Jenni Fagan
(Hogarth, $26)

The Last One
Alexandra Oliva
(Ballantine, $26)

STILETTOhttp://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160617-fantasy-stiletto-by-daniel-omalley.ece

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS
Special Contributor
Published: 17 June 2016 06:35 PM

In early 2012, Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel, The Rook, was published to heady reviews, and enchanted fans immediately demanded a sequel. Fifty-three months later — not that we’ve been counting, or anything — we finally have Stiletto, a worthy successor to O’Malley’s original tale.

“Original” was the word for The Rook, a novel that defied easy description. Equal parts mystery, comedy, spy drama and supernatural fantasy yarn, it introduced heroine Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas as a seemingly shy, ordinary Briton who is, in fact, a ranking official on Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service.

Myfanwy is a Rook, an operations executive of the Court, which administers the Checquy Group, sort of MI5 and MI6 rolled together with Torchwood.

The Checquy is a super-powered, black-ops government agency dedicated to fighting Great Britain’s supernatural enemies, of whom there are many. The most formidable of these foes are the Grafters, a despised Belgian army of superhuman monsters and the Checquy’s worst nemesis throughout history.

In Stiletto, something entirely unexpected has happened: The Checquy and the Grafters have declared an uneasy truce, and a formal peace agreement is being brokered in London. This masterstroke is engineered by Rook Thomas and Graaf Ernst van Suchtlen, the wily, centuries-old patriarch of the Broederschap (as the Grafters call themselves). The big question in Stiletto is: Can sworn enemies become allies without spilling oceans of blood along the way?

Some readers may be disappointed that Myfanwy plays more of a supporting role, albeit an essential one, in Stiletto. But O’Malley’s pivot opens up his universe with a zest that demonstrates his mastery of it, plunging us into the hearts, minds and intrigues of two engaging new protagonists.

One is Felicity Clements, a feisty urban-assault warrior for the Checquy. The other is Odette Liliefeld, the five-times-great-granddaughter and protégée of Graaf van Suchtlen. Both regard Rook Thomas with respect — deservedly so, as she possesses truly fearsome supernatural powers.

Unfortunately, the two young women dislike each other, with mistrust turning to loathing when Felicity is assigned to protect Odette during the peace conference. Meanwhile, acts of supernatural terrorism keep breaking out in London and around the U.K., casting suspicion on both sides as their delicate diplomacy is endangered by a mysterious gang of Antagonists. If the peace process breaks down, both the Checquy and the Grafters know the resulting war will bring destruction so catastrophic that even the average Muggle might be forced to notice it.

Having encountered the Grafters in The Rook, we know that mere mention of them is enough to make a Checquy agent turn pale. Grafters are Frankenstein monsters, so chemically and surgically altered that the Checquy regards them as barely human. Odette, at 23, has retractable bone-spur stilettos implanted in her wrists, and she sleeps in a bathtub full of life-extending goop that slows her metabolism and heals her numerous surgical upgrades. As O’Malley puts it: “Everything about her was bespoke, specially made. Her whole body was couture.”

In Stiletto, the Grafters view the Checquy as equally weird and scary, if not more so. After all, Rook Thomas and her cohort possess inborn supernatural powers, whereas the Grafters’ peculiar abilities are acquired through their scientific, medical and alchemic skills. But as we get to know Odette, her little brother Alessio and their doughty great-grandfather, it becomes apparent that perhaps these mortal enemies are not so unalike after all.

O’Malley faced a classic sophomore challenge with Stiletto: How could he pull off a sequel that would satisfy his eager following of Rook fans? Whenever readers are subject to delayed gratification from a favorite storyteller, expectations are bound to be insanely high. Moreover, there’s no recapturing the delicious element of surprise at discovering something fresh and inventive, as happens in the reading of a writer’s first, unexpectedly wonderful book.

However, O’Malley works his magic in adroit new ways, recalling all the legerdemain that delighted us the first time around. Stiletto is laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally bawdy and paced like a spy thriller replete with chases, betrayals and tragedies. There is slime, there is heartbreak, and there are wardrobe malfunctions. We even get allusions to E. Nesbit’s classic fantasy The Enchanted Castle and to Sherlock Holmes’ villainous archenemy, Professor Moriarty. Fear not, dear reader: Daniel O’Malley’s in charge, and the Checquy Files are in masterful hands.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Stiletto
Daniel O’Malley
(Little, Brown, $26)

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20151219-anthology-the-big-book-of-sherlock-holmes-stories-edited-by-otto-penzler.ece

Big Book of SherlockThe Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories
Edited by Otto Penzler
(Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard, $25)

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS
Special Contributor
Published: 19 December 2015 08:18 AM

Almost from his first appearance in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes inspired readers to try writing new adventures for him.

Some of these efforts were pastiches, faux Sherlockian tales written in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s energetic storytelling style. Others were parodies that played Holmes and his faithful partner, Dr. John H. Watson, for in-jokey laughs.

New York mystery bookseller and editor Otto Penzler, 73, is arguably the greatest mystery anthologist working, with more than 50 collections to his credit. No mystery fan’s library is complete without his 1977 Edgar Award winner, The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection. Until now, however, Penzler had never compiled a collection of Sherlock Holmes-related tales.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories (and at 780 pages, it really is big) required Penzler to sort through more than a century’s worth of the best Sherlockian fan fiction and winnow it down to 83 pieces. Since Holmes’ fans are legion, the number of tales paying tribute to him — originally scattered through a dozen decades of vintage magazines, obscure chapbooks and previous story collections — must now be in the hundreds, if not the thousands. That’s amazing, considering that the Canon, as Doyle’s Sherlock output is reverently known, consists only of the four original Holmes novels and 56 short stories.

The Big Book brings together stories from Sherlock-addicted writers from Britain, the U.S. and even Russia, including many who are not primarily known as mystery writers. The anthology includes names as famous and diverse as Kingsley Amis, Poul Anderson, J.M. Barrie, Anthony Burgess, Neil Gaiman, O. Henry, Laurie R. King, A.A. Milne, Anne Perry, Carolyn Wells and P.G. Wodehouse.

I was particularly intrigued by “The Case of the Man Who Was Wanted,” rumored to be a long-lost Sherlock Holmes story when it turned up in a box of Doyle family documents in the early 1940s. But, although Cosmopolitan magazine published the story in 1948 under Doyle’s name and with much hoopla, even his children were unsure of its provenance.

The true author finally was revealed to be Arthur Whitaker, an obscure British architect who had written the story and sent it to Doyle in 1911, hoping that it might be published as a collaborative effort. Doyle declined, sent Whitaker a check for 10 guineas and then stashed the manuscript away, unaware that he was setting up a literary whodunit that would not be solved for almost 40 years.

Penzler includes a couple of short pieces by Doyle: “The Field Bazaar,” written for a University of Edinburgh fundraiser in 1896, and “How Watson Learned the Trick,” a 503-word story created for the miniature library in Queen Mary’s dollhouse at Windsor Castle. You won’t, however, find Doyle’s extracanonical tales “The Lost Special” and “The Man With the Watches” in this volume, perhaps because the detective in those stories is never named — although he sounds very much like Holmes.

Penzler took great care in selecting The Big Book’s Sherlockian pastiches, making sure that his choices were extremely well-written and clever enough that they might have come from Doyle’s own hand. Many of the best ones are here, including Vincent Starrett’s “The Unique Hamlet,” David Stuart Davies’ “The Darlington Substitution Scandal,” Barry Day’s “The Case of the Curious Canary” and Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case.”

It is heartening to peruse The Big Book and see so many modern mystery writers — including Texas’ own Bill Crider — proving to be adept at the art of Sherlockian pastiche. It is not as easy as one might think to imitate Doyle’s style and to do it well; he too often is imitated very badly indeed.

But from 85-year-old Colin Dexter to 35-year-old Lyndsay Faye, these mystery writers have learned the trick. Sherlock-loving readers everywhere can sink happily into The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories and let themselves believe, just for a few hours, that a brand-new game is afoot.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas. She has been a Sherlock Holmes fan ever since she read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” at the age of 10.

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20151030-fiction-after-alice-by-gregory-maguire.ece

If you adored Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s hugely popular prequel set in a reimagined Oz, you may be intrigued by the idea of After Alice, his new novel published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic Victorian fantasy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Regrettably, this literary pastiche is far less engaging than Wicked. Only hardcore Alicedevotees will have the stamina to push through its unevenly paced narrative, and even they may be disappointed by the oddly lifeless denouement. This is a case where an editor really should have said: “You know what? Let’s lose that last chapter where Darwin just rambles on.”

After Alice is not a sequel to Carroll’s Alice and its companion, Through the Looking-Glass,despite its title’s implication. Instead, it is Maguire’s tale of what happens to the bemused people left aboveground when young Alice Clowd falls down that famous rabbit hole. Her friend, Ada Boyce, goes tumbling after Alice into Wonderland. Thus Ada spends the rest of the book chasing after Alice, who doesn’t reappear until nearly the end.

Ada, the local vicar’s 10-year-old daughter, is nobody’s favorite child. She often is cruelly ignored by servants and parents fixated on her sickly baby brother. “That lummoxing galootress,” the family’s Irish cook calls her; but Ada has a lumpish fortitude that makes up somewhat for her lack of imagination.

Meanwhile, motherless Alice is mostly absent from the story and is only vaguely sketched as a mysterious creature gifted at evading supervision by adults or by her teenage sister, Lydia — the same sister who, in the original Alice’s opening paragraph, reads a book “with no pictures or conversations in it.” It is Lydia who is the center of the aboveground narrative, just as Ada is the center of the underground story.

Maguire, however, fails to make either girl into a compelling heroine who deserves the reader’s investment of time and interest.

When the two younger girls disappear, their elders don’t seem particularly worried about where they may have gone. Lydia, at 15, is far more interested in herself and in the handsome young American abolitionist who has come to Oxford for the day, shepherding the august Charles Darwin on a visit to her father. Indeed, the only one who frets about Ada’s absence is her governess, whose chief concern is that she might be sacked if her charge doesn’t turn up soon.

Underground, Ada is magically freed from her torturous back brace (worn for an unnamed condition, probably scoliosis). Thus liberated, she meets up with many of Carroll’s famous characters, from the Mad Hatter and March Hare to the Walrus and the Carpenter. Maguire’s rendering of these characters is, unfortunately, far less witty than Carroll’s, and nothing particularly original or enchanting is added to any of their established personalities.

At times, Maguire’s prose becomes so elaborately arch that he appears to be striving vainly for Nabokovian heights (an impression confirmed by a bit of dialogue that is an obvious hat tip to the master’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle). Granted, he’s trying to tell a story in the florid Victorian style.

But Maguire over-eggs the pudding with a barrage of dense sentences such as this one: “To a deity lolling overhead on bolsters of zephyr, however, the city rises as if out of some underground sea, like Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, that fantasia about the submerged Breton cathedral rising once every hundred years off the island of Ys.” That came in the fourth paragraph of Chapter 1, and even now I am not quite sure why that sentence needed to be there. Only when Maguire stops trying so hard to impress does the narrative sporadically achieve some rhythm and flow.

In addition, serious real-world topics — death, abolition and Darwinism — drain much of the potentially playful tone from the chapters of the book that are set aboveground. In the underground chapters, the fantasy may not be consistently comedic, but at least the Cheshire Cat isn’t discussing the theory of evolution.

Wonderland has its downside, to be sure, what with the Queen of Hearts’ fondness for ordering beheadings. But compared to the dreariness of the Victorian age as depicted by Maguire, it is perhaps no wonder that one lonely, displaced character chooses to stay in Carroll’s fantasy land, rather than return to a real world that can never truly be home.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer. 

After Alice

Gregory Maguire

(William Morrow, $26.99)

RUBBERNECKER by Belinda Bauer

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150904-mystery-review-rubbernecker-by-belinda-bauer.ece

Rubbernecker

Belinda Bauer

(Atlantic Monthly, $24)

In the decade since the success of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we’ve seen many other novels with protagonists who have Asperger’s syndrome. “Aspies” typically are highly intelligent but socially awkward individuals with obsessive interests, idiosyncratic preferences and compulsive behaviors.

British crime writer Belinda Bauer has created one such protagonist, a compelling and sympathetic one, in young Patrick Fort. He’s about to start a term of anatomy classes at a Welsh medical school because he wants “to see what makes people work.”

Patrick doesn’t want to become a doctor. He wants to study anatomy because he has a fascination with death that goes back to his childhood and the loss of his father in a car accident.

Patrick is obsessed with “the thing that changes … between life and death. I can’t feel it; I want to see it. I want to know what it is.”

His burning curiosity is not unlike that of the motorists who slow down to watch the aftermath of a crash: “Rubberneckers. Desperate for a glimpse of death.” He watches horse races, as he used to do with his dad, because it was “the only sport where death was routinely televised.

“With every crashing fall, Patrick felt the shock of the inevitable, and then a tingling in his belly — a bubble of anticipation in case this was the one, this was the horse, this was the moment when all would be revealed to him, when the door might open just a chink and allow him to glimpse a deathly Narnia on the other side.

“He had never come close.”

Bauer weaves her mystery adroitly, moving among several points of view without losing the reader’s attention or interest.

For one character, she creates a bubble of frustrating isolation as a patient in a coma ward; on the other side of that bubble, she sketches one nurse who is an angel of kindness and another whose callous obsession with catching a rich husband leads the reader to the tantalizing edge of a whole new murder mystery.

Bauer also makes us care deeply about Patrick, the solitary protagonist who observes everything and records it all mentally but avoids being physically touched by anyone.

Patrick is in the world, but not quite of the world. He has a prodigious memory, remembering a 12-digit phone number after one recitation. He views life through a veil of emotional distance, yet he experiences it with a strange intensity that is painful and often heartbreaking to witness. He endures casual verbal cruelties and social snubs that would crush most people’s spirits, for they simply roll off him.

Still, Patrick’s mysterious internal wiring contains high-voltage charges, as his classmate Meg comes to see.

“‘What’s it like to be you?’ she asked.

“Patrick was surprised. Nobody had ever asked him what it was like to be him, not even his mother.

… “‘It’s very,’ he said forcefully. ‘Very very. … Very.’

… “Meg simply nodded. ‘It must be.’”

Patrick, though legally and intellectually an adult, can be as innocently oblivious as a young child. He frequently frustrates his mother, who can’t reconcile herself to the fact that her son is hopeless at casual conversation, unresponsive to obvious statements or pointless ones. When Meg tries to become friends with him, Patrick simply doesn’t pick up on her interest.

“She cleared her throat. ‘You’re different, you know.’

“‘Only different from you,’ he said. ‘Not different from me.’”

But Patrick does pick up on a crucial fact, something that none of his fellow anatomy students notice: The stated natural cause of death for their cadaver, known as No. 19, cannot possibly be correct.

Moreover, when he discovers No. 19’s true cause of death, almost no one believes him. Then, a crucial piece of evidence goes missing.

In the wake of his discovery and the disappearing evidence, Patrick is not so much a pursuer of justice as a mad scientist intent upon proving his thesis. But in his willingness to follow the clues, even if it means placing himself in mortal danger, he becomes an inadvertent avenger, a seeker of truth and an unlikely hero.

He will have readers cheering for him all the way.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

I became intrigued by Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel, The Rook, when Time book critic Lev Grossman raved, more than a month before the book’s release, that “this aging, jaded, attention-deficit-disordered critic was blown away.”

Indeed, The Rook is great, rattling fun, as if Neil Gaiman took Buffy the Vampire Slayer and crossed it with Torchwood.

It starts with a bang: Myfanwy Thomas awakens in a rainy London park, surrounded by a ring of dead bodies, all wearing latex gloves. She has no idea how she or the corpses got there. In fact, she doesn’t even know that she’s Myfanwy Thomas, because she is suffering from amnesia and remembers nothing about herself.

Myfanwy is a Rook, a junior-level member of the Court, an elite group of eight super-powered intelligence agents. The Court runs the Checquy Group, a British agency on Her Majesty’s Hyper-Secret Service, so powerful that it makes MI6 look lame. In fact, Myfanwy learns, “The Court answers to the highest individuals in the land only, and not always to them.”

Myfanwy discovers everything about herself from a dossier entrusted to her by “the original Myfanwy Thomas,” the person she was before she lost her memory. Her amnesia was no accident: One of her mysterious colleagues on the Court, she learns, is a traitor who wiped her memory and now wants her dead.

In the meantime, Myfanwy must step back into her own life and relearn everything about being Rook Thomas, all without anyone finding out what has happened to her. Her own life is anything but normal, because the Checquy Group is always on the lookout for monsters. One can never be too vigilant, since “Checquy statistics indicate that 15 percent of all men in hats are concealing horns.”

Thanks to the Checquy, Britons are blissfully unaware that supernatural forces constantly threaten the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. (The Checquy’s American counterpart is called the Croatoan, a little in-joke that is never explained but which students of American history will immediately get.) The worst of these threats to the U.K. are the Grafters, who come from Belgium, a mild-mannered nation that O’Malley manages to render extremely sinister.

Throughout a rip-roaring narrative, O’Malley off-handedly weaves deadpan humor. As a Rook, Myfanwy is more paper-pusher than field agent, and her job lacks glamour: “There’s a reason that there’s no TV show called CSI: Forensic Accounting.” She always gets stuck with tasks like “figuring out why the hell a two-door wardrobe in the spare room of a country house is considered to be a matter of national concern.”

But crises loom, duty calls, and Myfanwy soon finds herself using her own superpower to battle horrid Belgian monsters — at least whenever she isn’t “laboriously penning formal invitations to the members of the Court to come dine at the Rookery tonight before observing the unbelievably magical amazingness of the United Kingdom’s only oracular duck.

“Of course, I couched it all in slightly more impressive terms.”