by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
In the late 2000s, Linda Landrigan hired me as the Assistant Editor at AHMM, and my education in mystery and publishing began. Robert Hahn’s reviews brought me reflections about trends, foibles, and achievements in new books of the genre. I was always curious what insights and wisdoms his columns would bring.
I’m honored that, ten years later, after writing a debut true crime book of my own, I’m stepping into Mr. Hahn’s formidable space in the magazine. I hope that with my own reviews I can continue to honor the work he did here, and bring AHMM readers into the worlds of new books still to come.
The engine to any mystery is the human urge for resolution. There is the search for the perpetrator, the journeying through contextual possibilities, and, in the instances that most satisfy readers and investigators, the discovery. After finding out whodunit, there comes the question: what, exactly, should be done to the “who”?
In her 2014 debut memoir, The Other Side, Lacy M. Johnson confronted her memory of one particular perpetrator: a man she loved. A man whose intermittent affection acted alongside his terrifying brutality. His violence culminated in his kidnapping, raping, and planning to kill her. When she escaped the room he locked her in, the man became a fugitive to Venezuela, where he still resides. In the hard, bracing voice of that book, Johnson meditated on, and ultimately overturned, common assumptions of victimhood, survival, and recovery. She interrogated the contexts in which her relationship went on, the expectations of witnesses, and the irrevocable changes to her own inner world.
Johnson’s latest book, The Reckonings (Scribner, $26) is an essay collection. Attempting to reach the profound from the banal is the task of any essayist, and The Reckonings opens with a seemingly banal consequence of Johnson’s writing that first memoir. At each public appearance she did for The Other Side, an audience member would ask the repetitive question: “What would you like to happen to him?”
“To be honest,” Johnson writes, “I’m not sure what justice is supposed to feel like. There is a shut place inside me. If I caused him to suffer, would that go away?”
What Johnson decides she wants might prove unsatisfying to the onlookers who cinematically want, as she writes, “blood, guts, gore”: violence for violence. She contemplates the possibilities of the audience members and readers asking, many of whom must have suffered in ways similar to her own story. She contemplates the acts of other perpetrators of other crimes. And her conclusion takes them into account:
“I want a reckoning for the person who believes he deserves to take life, and for the person who has been sentenced to offer his. I want a reckoning for all the wars politicians ask our children to fight on their behalf, and for all the children those wars fail to protect. I want a long line of reckonings. I want the truth told back to us. I want the lies laid bare.
“‘No,’ I say to the woman who has asked the question from the back of the room, or from against the wall, or sitting at the head of the table. ‘I don’t want him dead. I want him to admit all the things he did, to my face, in public, and then to spend the rest of his life in service to other people’s joy.
“. . . This is the ending I want. I don’t want him dead. I don’t even want him to suffer. More pain creates more sorrow, sometimes generations of sorrow, and it amplifies injustice rather than cancels it out. I want to let go of my anger and fear and pain. I want to let go of the hatred and enmity and spite. I want that shut place to open. The ending I want is inside.”
The Reckonings extends Johnson’s inquiry from the enormities of that personal crime to the intimacies of other, arguably vaster crimes. Johnson examines the consequences of crimes that are institutional, on the scale of environmental, historical, and societal abuse. “Girlhood in a Semibarbarous Age” and “Speak Truth to Power” study the overwhelming constancy of men’s sexist abuse and murder of women; Johnson’s tender observations of her own children are a frequent, loving fulcrum upon which her own fear turns. “The Fallout” explores the horror of the West Lake Landfill, an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in Missouri awash with lethally toxic chemicals. It’s an apparent crime for which a suffering community can find no culprit who will answer for it. Elsewhere, Johnson investigates the quiet complicity of white womanhood in maintaining the criminal effects of racial violence; the power of art during a time of crushing powerlessness; and the transformative prospect of joy.
All throughout, Johnson is a rigorous philosopher of pain, excavating the very language we use to cope with it. The word “prayer” has its roots in the Old French, but also “Medieval Latin, precaria, from which we get precarious;” the words “autopsy” and “atrocity” share a “single proto-Indo-European syllable from which we derive dozens of words about seeing.
[ . . . ] Both . . . require a witness—someone who survives, who sees for herself, with her own eyes.”
Johnson does not declare a balm to the wounds she witnesses. But her explorations gradually propose a radical redirection toward forms of justice that refuse to do more harm. Johnson does not construct her essaystic attempts with optimism, a state of mind she discards as inferior to hope. She essays with the hard-earned insights wrought from her own surviving and self-making. For Johnson, writing is a compass through the impossibilities of total recovery, and an opener for the potentialities of joy that still remain. Ultimately, The Reckonings concerns itself with the idea of containing and discontinuing, rather than perpetuating, human suffering. As impossible a task it may seem, readers are fortunate to witness Johnson’s grappling with it.
In the third installment of his Taipei Night Market series, 99 Ways to Die (Soho Crime, $29.95), author Ed Lin returns to Jing-nan, the wry proprietor of Unknown Pleasures. Jing-nan has christened his ancestral family barbecue stall after the debut Depeche Mode album, and he entreats tourists as Johnny, a jolly persona hawking vegan jujube fruits and deep-boiled stews through social media hashtags.
Here, a different set of reckonings begin. The ridiculously wealthy landlord of Unknown Pleasures, Tong-tong, has been publicly kidnapped and placed in a dog cage. The kidnappers livestream Tong-tong’s (incontinent) suffering for maximum humiliation, and threaten to murder him if their demands go unmet. Tong-tong’s daughter, Peggy Lee, is Jing-nan’s bullying ex-classmate, but he reluctantly agrees to help her find her father. Together with Jing-nan’s taciturn elderly employee, Frankie, a former denizen of Taiwan’s underworld, his wisecracking aboriginal cook, Dwayne, and his witty, woke girlfriend, Nancy, Jing-nan becomes an unlikely gumshoe again.
Wending its way through Taipei’s class divisions, social media foibles, busy streets, and unshakeable filial pieties, 99 Ways to Die immerses readers in urban Taiwan. The country faces old and new pressures from China, tensions that pervade the kidnapping plot. Mystery fans needing more constant action might grow impatient at the book’s reliance on dialogue. But the characters’ relationships and banter have their own appealing energy, and the layers of revelation grow more action-packed by the book’s final chapter.
Justice here proves elusive, grim, and comic all at once, served with an appealing side of Jing-nan’s smoky stews and skewers. Come for the dark world of the night market, and stay for the unpredictable, entertaining characters.