Winnipeg Free Press column, March 3, 2018


If you’re a fan of the 1942 film Casablanca — and, really, how could you not be? — then you will absolutely want to read Noah Isenberg’s splendid We’ll Always Have Casablanca (Norton, 336 pages, $24).

The author traces the film’s history from its origin as an unsold play about the threat of German anti-Semitism, through its production as a written-by-committee flick released in a hurry to capitalize on pro-American publicity, to its rather surprising instant-classic status.

This is so much more than a mere making-of book, though. It’s a rich history, not just of the movie, but of the time in which it was made and of the people who made it. Isenberg explores the film’s political significance, its legacy and its enduring impact on popular culture; he also busts a few myths about the movie, too. A stellar book.

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Meg Gardiner’s Unsub (Dutton, 432 pages, $14) draws its inspiration from the Zodiac case — the (still-unknown) assailant who killed several people in northern California in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Gardiner has created a fictionalized version of the Zodiac killer who, after dropping out of sight for a couple of decades, has apparently resumed killing.

Mack Hendrix, the detective who ran the case back in the day, has retired, his obsession with the killer having taken its toll on him. Mack’s daughter Caitlin is also a cop, and she’s determined to solve the case, to bring a killer to justice and to provide some measure of peace to her father. But will the darkness that swept over her father claim her, too?

Brilliantly constructed and written, this is a thriller of almost unparallelled intensity and suspense.

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Here’s a gift for Kathy Reichs’ legion of fans: a crime novel that doesn’t star forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

Two Nights (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $20) introduces us to former cop Sunday (Sunnie) Night, a sarcastic, plain-speaking woman with a past about which she’d prefer not to say too much. Like Brennan, her single-minded pursuit of the truth sometimes puts her in grave danger.

In what we can only hope will be the first of a series, Sunnie doesn’t really want to dig into the year-old disappearance of a teenage girl; but, not being the kind of person who can ignore someone in distress, she jumps in with both feet — and soon finds herself investigating a cold-case homicide that seems to be heating up rapidly.

Either Reichs is trying out a new, more energetic writing style, or writing about a new character has given her an adrenalin rush; either way, the book is fast-paced and beautifully crafted, with an urgency to its writing we haven’t seen from Reichs in a while.

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In Matthew Reilly’s The Four Legendary Kingdoms (Pocket Books, 464 pages, $13), Jack West Jr., the hero of a handful of adventure yarns, is abducted and spirited away to a frightening place where he is forced to compete (to the death, of course) against several opponents. These are, he learns, the Great Games of Hydra, an ancient ritual that dates back thousands of years. Jack must survive at all costs; it isn’t just his own life hanging in the balance, it’s the lives of his family, too, and of — no, really — the world itself.

Reilly, who specializes in seriously unbelievable stories and incredibly fast pacing, turns in another winning performance here. If you look at them dispassionately, his books really shouldn’t work: the stories are wildly implausible, the characters much larger than life, the dialogue often rough-hewn and unpolished.

But they do work, spectacularly, grabbing us by the arm on the very first page and hauling us through the impossible-to-put-down adventure until we crash, breathless, out of the book at the end.

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