May 29, 2017

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Books

Natchez trilogy ends with a bang

Mississippi Blood (Morrow, 704 pages, $25) is the breathtaking conclusion to Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning trilogy. Penn Cage, desperate to find out whether his father is a murderer and trying to come to terms with the death of his fiancée, is driven by the kind of rage that makes a man break his own moral code. He’s already done some terrible things, and he’s capable of more.

This is a hugely ambitious story. It’s a murder mystery that features a small-town doctor, his family, a group of white supremacists, a dark conspiracy reaching back into the past, and even — and this is central to the trilogy — the murders of JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a fictional story, but it’s told so well that it feels as though it might have actually happened. If you haven’t read the first two books in the trilogy, Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree, don’t panic: the author opens this one with a very niftily presented summary of the story so far. Which means you can jump right in.

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Judith Rashleigh is a beautiful, ambitious woman. She works in London at one of the world’s pre-eminent art auction houses; after a run-in with her rather unpleasant boss (she embarrasses him by suggesting one of his recent acquisitions is a fake), she’s fired. Her life spirals out of control until she finds a new purpose: to reinvent herself and live the kind of life she’s always felt entitled to... no matter what it takes.

Maestra (Putnam, 323 pages, $22), by L.S. Hilton, is a remarkable novel: perfectly written, with a story that is simultaneously sordid and elegant, and a central character who is as clever, resourceful and ruthless as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley.

Like Ripley, who built himself a life based on deception and murder, Judith is impossible not to root for, even as she’s doing some despicable things. We don’t like her, not really, but the author somehow makes us at least her co-conspirator. A brilliant novel.

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In Renee Patrick’s Design for Dying (Forge, 320 pages, $23) Lillian Frost, a young woman, is shocked to discover that her former roommate has been murdered. The dead woman worked in the wardrobe department at Paramount Studios; when Lillian tries to find out why her friend was killed, she winds up with an unexpected partner: Edith Head, the (real-life) costumer designer who would later win several Oscars and become famous around the world.

The authors ("Renee Patrick" is the pseudonym of a husband-and-wife writing team) seamlessly blend fictional characters with real people and places, and they do a nice job of taking us back to Hollywood in the 1930s.

The book has a couple of minor flaws — Edith Head doesn’t have quite enough to do, and she feels like a bit player when she’s supposed to be the co-star — but it’s well-written and enjoyable. Recommended for fans of mysteries set during Hollywood’s heyday.

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In Convicting Avery: The Bizarre Laws and Broken System behind "Making a Murderer" (Prometheus Books, 220 pages, $19), criminal defense attorney Michael D. Cicchini uses the acclaimed documentary series Making a Murderer as a jumping-off point to explore a flawed legal system.

In 1985 Steven Avery was charged with rape; despite a complete lack of physical evidence and 16 alibi witnesses, he was convicted. Nearly two decades later, DNA testing proved he was innocent. Soon after his release from prison, he was arrested again, this time for murder. Despite some serious flaws in the prosecution’s case, he was once again convicted.

Cicchini covers a lot of ground: the unreliability of victim identifications (Avery was convicted of rape because the victim wrongly ID’d him); shoddy police work (some evidence in the murder case might have been planted); tainted evidence (a bullet that was contaminated during the testing process was admitted at trial); and more. Thoughtful and well-reasoned, the book is eye-opening and frightening.

Halifax freelancer David Pitt’s column appears the first weekend of every month.

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