The big fall mysteries have arrived, including a surefire bestseller from Kate Atkinson and novels by Abby Geni and Andrew Gross that reckon in different ways with crime and the American dream. Author Charles Finch has some pumpkin spice reviews.
Everyone loves Kate Atkinson, but I think writers might have a particular admiration for her. She dissolves the choices that bedevil us: between big plots and wry, acute, noticing sentences; between genre and literary fiction; between the wildly popular and the wildly nuanced.
Her new spy novel “Transcription” (Little, Brown, $28), returns to World War II, also the subject of her best book, “Life After Life.” Having been struck by a car in 1981, Juliet Armstrong, lying in the road, flashes back to the war, which she spent involved in the complex game of flushing out England’s homegrown enemies. Is this vengeance at a distant remove?
“Transcription” is a minor work in the Atkinson canon — a bit meandering, a bit quiet — but nonetheless a joy to read. It continues the author’s vital project of reconstituting how we understand British women of that era — not as dutiful handmaidens of the home front but as flesh-and-blood young women of 18, 19, who, across every class, were willing to die for their ideals.
From the start of Abby Geni’s second novel “The Wildlands” (Counterpoint, $26), you know you’re in good hands. The Chicago writer is describing the surreal effects of a tornado in a small Oklahoma town. A bird flies backwards; an umbrella turns a couple times, then floats “straight into the sky, rising like a UFO.” What an image!
For the McClouds, who lose their father, this sense of unreality persists past the storm. Out of their loss, Geni spins a careful, humane, moving story, centered primarily on the youngest McCloud, Cora, who finds her missing older brother Tucker, an inept ecoterrorist, just when he needs her most, and she needs him least.
“The Wildlands” is a dense, slow-moving novel, but it’s filled with rewards for the patient reader — in its best sections, the most responsible McCloud, Darlene, who has forfeited her dreams for her siblings, searches for green shoots of possibility in a life dominated by poverty and hard work. America, Geni argues, shouldn’t demand so much heroism of its people. Many give it anyway.
Andrew Gross — writer of slick thrillers, sometime denizen of the James Patterson factory, good head of hair — takes on a new challenge in the broad but irresistible “Button Man” (Minotaur, $27.99).
It’s the saga of a single family’s beginnings in the garment trade at the turn of the 20th century. Tracking the three Rabishevsky brothers, led by Morris, as they explore Manhattan in search of opportunity, the book lets us witness an indomitable work ethic rewarded with success.
But that brings its own problem: Murder, Inc. Will Morris take a stand or a powder against the fearsome Louis “Lepke” Buchalter? “The Pirkei Avot tells us it is not our responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world,” his brother reminds him, “but we are not free to desist from it either.”
Gross’s beats and characters can be overly simplistic, but this is a big, heartfelt handshake of a book, with all the street-scrambling energy that distinguishes the best fiction of Jeffrey Archer and Mario Puzo.