by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
The American abroad: an archetype in mysteries. Weary and alone, baffled and frantic, annoyed or annoying, embedded in the locale. How will a protagonist—or an antagonist—form a relationship with their unfamiliar surroundings, beyond the States’ borders? What plan, or lack of a plan, will animate them? What past haunts them into a new country? Will they scheme and manipulate? Or will they work closely with the people of another place, collaborating in healthy ways? This month, Booked and Printed examines two mysteries that take Americans to high-pressure criminal acts in different countries, forcing them to confront their unfamiliar surroundings and the weight of their own secrets.
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In Daniel Nieh’s Take No Names, Victor Li is a melancholy fugitive. Reeling from the murder of his father, escaping the warm entreaties of his sister, and fleeing a warrant of arrest for a crime he did not commit, Victor copes by overexercising, drinking too much, and working under-the-table jobs. He grew up in California with a white American mother and a Chinese father, and he knows how to maneuver the United States and its officious requirements. But he chooses the company of undocumented Chinese immigrants, bunking with them in their overcrowded Seattle housing, and carries a fake Chinese passport instead of his American identification.
One rainy Thanksgiving, Victor meets Mark, an Iraq War veteran with mysterious scars and the unfortunate urge to vomit at the sight of broken glass. Together, over beers and mixed martial arts workouts, Victor and Mark form a friendship, one predicated on never speaking of their respective pasts. Victor is drawn in to Mark’s life of random gigs and precarious housing, hanging out in his converted storage container. He eventually follows Mark to a new, illegal gig: robbing the federal government of deported residents’ belongings. At night, they trespass on the storage containers housing exiled immigrants’ most precious property. When Victor stumbles on a Chinese puzzle box, cracks its code, and finds its contents, his discovery propels him and Mark into grander, more dangerous schemes across several borders. The pivotal theft will also reunite Victor with his father’s murderer, a haunting young man making ever more shocking decisions.
Nieh’s second installment of his Victor Li novels is a smart, worldly, and deeply informed thriller. Take No Names deals with contemporary geopolitical realities while never losing sight of distinctions between individual characters. In the hands of a lesser author, the themes might have read as didactic: anti-Asian racism in the US, China’s economic incursions into developing nations, undocumented immigration between California and Mexico, the trauma of America’s war veterans, and a mercenary American presence in a nation trying to form its own destiny. But with Nieh’s plotting, each element hangs together, clicking into place like a puzzle box, making us invest in the characters’ attempts to survive, solve, and subvert it all. The dialogue is frequently clever and funny, and the characters are fully, humanely drawn, even those with brief cameos. Victor is a sympathetic protagonist—a young man drowning in grief and isolation, someone whose wish to do good is sometimes his greatest failure.
With the artful use of Mandarin characters, compelling characters, and a rich sense of multiple settings, Take No Names invites readers into a cross-cultural page-turner. Readers will hesitate to leave the book before discovering its end.
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Two Nights in Lisbon by Chris Pavone begins with a forty-six-year-old woman, Ariel Pryce, waking alone in the morning, wondering when her husband John will return to their hotel room. When he stays gone, Ariel immediately grows frantic. Over the course of two days, her quest to find him moves from their hotel to the highest echelons of the American government.
Her attempts to locate John take her to courteous, wincing hotel workers, skeptical Portuguese police officers, and a lecherous employee of the US embassy. Between these expeditions to learn her husband’s fate, we jump to moments of Ariel’s past: the roots of her current panic and anger. Ariel has endured a series of sexual assaults, and then disbelief and abandonment after those assaults, all her life. She was once a minor actress in high-society New York City, with a different name and a different husband. Now she’s a single mom to a teenage boy and the owner of a struggling, rural bookstore. Her new marriage to this current, missing husband is barely a year old. John invited her to Lisbon while he traveled on business; she was supposed to celebrate a vacation for the first time in years. So where is he?
Her husband John, it turns out, has been kidnapped by shadowy perpetrators. Her attempt to pay the ransom for his freedom will reach a nameless, enraged money provider. It will also activate an international pursuit of the truth behind this kidnapping—or else an attempt to silence Ariel forever.
It has seemed a trend in contemporary novels of any genre to address the day’s American roilings: the sinister roles of the Internet, social movements to end acts of racism and sexual violence, and rising extremism, for example. While we often see brief perspectives of other characters, the book’s third-person narration largely focuses on Pryce’s point of view. In between fast-paced plotting, Ariel rages against trends like cancel culture and smartphone obsession. Those soliloquys fall flat, sounding like a cable TV commentator.
Readers are reminded often of Ariel’s middle age, perhaps as explanation for her grousing, or to emphasize her unlikeliness as heroine. But her thinking often feels superficial. The rest of the characters are drawn in similarly unconvincing ways—Ariel’s former community is wealthy, and therefore money-obsessed, materialistic, and sociopathic. The Portuguese hotel employees and detectives often consider Ariel a crazy American. Ariel’s younger, social-media-adept bookstore employee is made narcissistic by her phone apps, unable, like the rest of her generation, to keep a secret.
We’re told in the narration that the events in the book took place long before the #MeToo movement. The book seems to intend for the international misadventure to be an affecting, entertaining, #MeToo–themed vengeance plot. Did the plot require the inclusion of its long, graphic, brutal rape scene? This reader isn’t sure.
Parts of Two Nights in Lisbon entertain, with its traditional thriller structure. Readers will often be eager to know what happens next. But the novel is, ultimately, a mixed itinerary. Audiences should be advised before beginning the journey.
all points bulletin: The Mystery Writers of America has announced the winners of its special awards for 2022: Laurie R. King as the Grand Master, Lesa Holstine as the Raven Award recipient, and Juliet Grames as the Ellery Queen Award recipient.
Copyright © 2022. Laurel Flores Fantauzzo