Books that will keep you turning pages


Books that will keep you turning pages

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH lets you in on secrets about irresistible arrivals from overseas.

Good plot, weak prose

JAMES Comey's Central Park West is one of the weakest crime novels I've read. Yet, I can recommend it without a moment's hesitation. Don't approach it as a typical detective story. Instead, read it for the inside look Comey provides into the machinery of the FBI. I'd bet good money that Comey's literary agents, Matt Latimer and Keith Urbahn, told him after the publication of A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership that if Dolly Parton and Bill Clinton can write novels, then he can do it too. No one can argue with that. Isn't Comey the man who prosecuted Martha Stewart? Who investigated Hillary Clinton? Who was the first to blow the whistle on Russian interference in the 2016 US election? Wasn't he the nemesis of the Gambino mafia? If there's anyone who understands the workings of the American legal system, it's Comey. His father was a police officer in Yonkers, New York. He himself rose through various branches of the legal system until he crossed swords with Donald Trump as the head of the FBI.

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The novel is rich in characters, each with a backstory you can't help feeling is somehow correlated with someone from Comey's past. The catch is that he's a pedestrian prose writer. His dialogue falls as heavily on the ear as Scott Turow's, his manipulation of tension and pacing resembling someone with back problems trying to hang laundry. His main characters are Nick and Nora (a bit of F Scott Fitzgerald, a touch of Henrik Ibsen), but the one that captures the imagination is Benny Dugan, one of Nora's cronies, making you wonder if it's not Comey himself. Quite a ruthless man who knows that sometimes you have to be badder than bad to drive away the Evil.

Where the book's value lies is in the two major investigations and resulting court cases in which Nora, in her capacity as a prosecutor, is involved. Comey knows how these things work, and one positive outcome of Central Park West will undoubtedly be that no one will be able to write an FBI novel again without a working knowledge of the things Comey subtly weaves into his story.

Nora is a force in the courtroom, prosecuting a very famous and infamous Mafia leader. Everything is going well until the former governor of New York (who, as we know, is a special breed within the larger species of Gwappus americanus) is seemingly murdered by his estranged wife. Nora is tasked with prosecuting the alleged murderer, then the Mafia rogue she has in her sights starts to manipulate everything with a bit of insider information that significantly clouds her perspective on both cases and life in general.

It's such an enticing plot, with so much room for improvisation, that you can't stop reading — even though with every new twist and every conversation you wish Comey were a greater virtuoso with his instrument. If someone like Michael Connelly, or even Lee Child, had been asked to edit this manuscript, Central Park West would have been a detective novel for all times. If I were Comey, I would have put Latimer and Urbahn to one side and found a proper literary agent. He seems to be already working on his next novel.

Central Park West by James Comey was published by Head of Zeus and costs R597 at Exclusive Books.


Here we are firmly entangled with the classics. Cavanagh doesn't shy away from it. He uses the same plot as Patricia Highsmith in her wonderful novel Strangers on a Train (1950), so there's a good chance many of his readers will recognise it — if they don't at least associate it with Alfred Hitchcock's film of the same name. Or with Throw Momma from the Train. It has also inspired certain episodes in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Rizzoli & Isles, Law & Order and Shameless. The thing is, Cavanagh, known for filling his novels with unexpected twists and unpredictability, does his best to outdo Highsmith's story. Does he succeed? Without a doubt. This book becomes part of the classics, destined to be mentioned in the same breath as Highsmith's. Righto, the plot: two women meet in a pub and realise they can each commit the perfect murder if they do each other a favour and eliminate each other's life antagonist. What could go wrong?

Kill for Me, Kill for You by Steve Cavanagh was published by Simon & Schuster and costs $27.99 at Amazon.

Sheet sport

It's a matter of perspective, isn't it? Love stories usually tell things from the male point of view — how love is won, how the man takes possession. Even in the most liberated novels, it's ultimately a chauvinistic spirit that prevails. Rachel Lynn Solomon proves with Business or Pleasure that it can be different. There's something delightfully daring in her story of a woman who had a steamy night with a semi-legendary actor and, due to a series of circumstances, is asked by the actor to guide him on what a woman truly expects from a man in bed. It's a story of sensual communication, if one can call it that. It's also a love story that's so fresh and original that with every chapter, you feel as if you're being handed a gift. Just be patient. The education starts after 50 pages. A book for men as well, if you're willing to learn. From women.

Business or Pleasure by Rachel Lynn Solomon was published by Berkley and costs $14.79 at Amazon.

Short stories

Sometimes you buy a book because you've heard from someone that it's really good. Sometimes you take a look at the cover, and your mischievous inner child gets the upper hand. You buy it, read it, and to your dumbfounded surprise, it's the opposite of what you expected. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has a seductive peach on its front cover. You can guess my thoughts. The original hardcover had a photo of a dignified young black woman, conservatively dressed, with a big red bowtie suggesting the opposite. That's what this brilliant collection of nine short stories is about — the experiences of black women in modern God-fearing American society. The peach on the cover makes one think of TS Eliot's “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" — a symbol of someone who has a carefree approach to life. That's also the collective basis for these nine stories — women who, like Prufrock, were cautious about eating the peach of joy in life, as well as a few who certainly did.

This new edition of the book corrects the poor reception it received during Covid. Deesha Philyaw is one of the prominent names on the new literary scene. I'm incredibly glad I bought it, even though my original motivation was anything but pure.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw was published by Pushkin Press and costs R414 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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