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‘Terminal City’ fast-paced thriller Howorth’s debut novel a Southern mosaic

‘Terminal City’ (Dutton), by Linda Fairstein
An ongoing pleasure in Linda Fairstein’s novels about assistant district attorney Alexandra “Alex” Cooper is the author’s ability to weave in bits of little known history about New York City into her stories. These tales of old New York aren’t window dressing but become part of the action, moving the plot along while providing glimpses of the Big Apple that many people never see. Grand Central Terminal — “the world’s loveliest station” — makes an exciting backdrop as “Terminal City” delivers plenty of suspense, intrigue and twists in the hunt for a killer. Fairstein’s latest novel also is a bit of a departure for this series. Since much of the action takes place in or around Grand Central, “Terminal City” works more as a tense police procedural than a legal thriller with Alex only in court for a few scenes.

Alex again teams with NYPD Detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace to investigate the murder of a young woman found in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. The detectives link the case to Grand Central when another murder happens within days. The clues lead to the bowels of the iconic landmark where hidden staircases, catwalks 20 stories above the ground and rooms that don’t show up on any blueprint make perfect hiding places. An underground community of homeless people, complete with makeshift apartments, also provides a convenient way for a criminal to disappear. A quick resolution of the case is even more important as the president of the United States is due to arrive in New York in a few days.

Alex’s friendship with the detectives has always been the heart of this series, but a potential romance between her and Chapman adds a welcome complication to “Terminal City.” Fairstein maintains the integrity of Grand Central’s history while keeping the solid plot on track. Even finding out why the aqua celestial ceiling was installed backward plays into the story. “Terminal City” — which also was Grand Central’s nickname in its early years — doesn’t slow down, with believable twists and a heart-stopping denouement. “Terminal City” is one of Fairstein’s strongest novels in her always reliable series.

“Flying Shoes” (Bloomsbury) by Lisa Howorth
There are many good reasons to read and enjoy “Flying Shoes.” For one, it is the debut novel of Lisa Howorth, a much revered stalwart of the literary South. She is the founder, with her husband, Richard, of Square Books, a venerable independent bookstore that took a perch on the town square in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1979. After all these years of promoting and befriending a broad cast of authors both famous and fledgling, Howorth now offers a book of her own. There is a measure of celebration in her arrival as a novelist. And how fares the book itself?

Its central character, Mary Byrd Thornton, is a refreshing creation. She’s bright and brassy, caring but nonconformist, a Southern woman with two school-age children, a dutiful husband, an eclectic circle of friends and maybe an oddball lover on the side. Mary Byrd, as she’s most often called, has a lot on her mind. Flowers, plants and shrubs. Family history. Criminal investigations, old and new. On one level, the book is a form of meditation, through fiction, of Howorth’s loss of her young stepbrother in a molestation and murder many years ago. The crime occurred when Howorth was 15, and even after decades it has never been solved.

As the novel opens, Mary Byrd learns that the long-dormant probe into the killing of her 9-year-old stepbrother has been reopened and a suspect very likely will be prosecuted. Mary Byrd lives in a Mississippi university town — think Oxford — and will need to travel to Virginia to meet with the cold case detective. This is the thread of a plot that carries the narrative, but it often is lost as Mary Byrd’s attention wanders and Howorth gives center stage to various secondary characters and events. For some readers, this can be frustrating. Long digressions can put a drag on the pace of the story.

But Howorth writes with real flair. Her riff on Mary Byrd’s fear of flying is hilarious. In the space of a few pages she touches on every tic in the neurotic’s bag of flight phobias. (AP) Those secondary characters and events also can be expertly drawn. One of the best is Teever, a penniless black Vietnam veteran who lives in a cemetery and is one of Mary Byrd’s good buddies. When he suffers a deep, ghastly cut to his foot, he seeks out impoverished Mexicans in a rundown trailer park to provide the medical care — a chilling but wildly funny episode.

It is one of many well-crafted narrative detours — detours that tend to diminish the suspense of the child murder case that has been reopened. Over the length of the book, however, these divergent episodes form a memorable mosaic of a place, a time and a good-hearted woman at midlife, facing crises old and new. (AP)

By Oline H. Cogdill

By: Oline H. Cogdill

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