Three Great Books #8:
A PI's wrenching memoir, a female sniper in WWII, and crime at the end of the world.
Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation, by Erika Krouse
True story: Erika Krouse is 33 when she drops into a bookstore and reaches for a Paul Auster novel at the same time as a local attorney. They chat for a bit, and he proceeds to tell her something he’s never told anyone. This kind of thing apparently happens to her a lot, and the attorney decides that particular quality would make for a great private investigator, so he offers her some contract work. Then they get a client with a potentially explosive case. She’s a local college student who says she was sexually assaulted by a group of football players and visiting recruits. This kicks off a years-long effort to sue the university under Title IX and get some semblance of recompense. And Krouse’s talents for interviewing victims and witnesses prove crucial to the case. At the same time, she’s trying to move forward with her personal life following her own childhood sexual abuse by X, an unidentified man who is close to her emotionally abusive and manipulative mother. This page-turner, described as a combination of memoir and literary true crime, will not make you think any better of big-money college football programs or the folks who run them. (The town and school aren’t named, and characters’ names are pseudonyms, but you can Google your way to the University of Colorado at Boulder pretty quickly.) My favorite quote, which seems especially relevant this week: “It was the same attitude I got from guys who sucker punched me in a dojo or did some dirty trick to win. They gave me the same shoulder-twitching shrugs, as if saying, 'You come into my house. My house, my rules.’ The problem was, I couldn’t tell where the women’s house was. Men owned everywhere.”
The Diamond Eye, by Kate Quinn
I love historical fiction that highlights something — or in this case, someone — so interesting you can’t believe you haven’t heard about it before. In 1941, Lyudmila Pavlichenko is living in Odessa, separated from her brutish husband, working on her history degree, and hoping for a better life for her young child. Then Hitler invades Russia. Mila enlists, and because she’s had firearms training, with marksmanship badges to prove it, she is determined to become a sniper. (About 800,000 women served in the Soviet Armed Forces during WWII, according to the author’s note.) It’s no spoiler to say that Mila succeeds, eventually racking up 309 official kills on the Russian front — including one German sniper with whom she engages in a three-day duel — and earning the nickname of Lady Death. Stalin, seizing on the PR possibilities, sends her to Washington D.C. as part of a delegation attending Eleanor Roosevelt’s international student conference, and then, a goodwill tour designed to grow support for sending Allied troops to open up a second front in Europe. She and the First Lady, who accompanies her on part of the tour, become friends, and Mila becomes a bit of a celebrity, meeting movie stars, inspiring a Woody Guthrie song, and answering a string of insipid questions about her clothes and makeup from the U.S. press. She also delivers a banger of a speech to a group in Chicago, saying, “Gentlemen, I have killed 309 fascist invaders by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” Most of the characters come straight from the historical record. But the fiction kicks in with a plot to kill FDR, which has Mila matching wits with another sniper in America. That storyline alternates with one that chronicles Mila’s earlier experiences in battle. Both are thrilling.
The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters
In six months, an asteroid will collide with the earth. Billions of people will die instantly and most of the rest will die later as ash blocks out the sun. And everyone has taken that news about as well as you’d expect! But Hank Palace, newly promoted to police detective in Concord, NH, is just trying to do his job. Suicides abound, but Hank thinks the latest case — a man found hanging by a belt in a fast-food bathroom — might not be what it seems, and is determined to investigate. Even as society frays and there are no more long-term consequences for anything, he believes that the truth matters and wrongdoers should be held responsible. (I admire Hank for his ability to compartmentalize.) This is a fantastic procedural set in extraordinary circumstances. I felt visceral dread as if asteroid 2011GV1 were really coming for us, but the book doesn’t sacrifice plot for atmosphere — it’s a great mystery! It’s also the first in a trilogy. Countdown City and World of Trouble are set 77 and 14 days before impact, respectively. In those, Hank is no longer officially a policeman, but he’s stubbornly still trying to solve crimes without the infrastructure of law enforcement or even reliable water and power service. His sister, Nico, appears in all three books, following a very different path than Hank as the asteroid approaches. I won’t say these are uplifting reads, but I was thoroughly entertained and moved by all three of them, and the conclusion is still echoing in my thoughts.
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