Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Quirky Mystery Making a Science Point, ALDO by Betty Jean Craige

Black Opal Books, a small publisher with West Coast roots, is releasing ALDO in paperback on March 24. I've been mentioning the trend of university presses bringing out powerful mysteries, often literary ones or with a strong tie to the press location. In this twist, the light-reading mystery comes directly from a college professor, Dr. Betty Jean Craige -- who has written books in the fields of Spanish poetry, modern literature, history of ideas, politics, ecology, and art.

ALDO may amuse headline readers who'll recognize the tweeting President on the sidelines, and makes a point about universities defending freedom of research and speech. As a mystery, it's more an amateur effort, with sketched characters and heavy revelation of criminal intent. And I tend to resist novels that are making a point more than they are crafting a plot. That said, I enjoyed the book's portrayal of germline genetics research and its implications, and the author's effort to write from the point of view of a Latina immigrant. If those are your collecting interests, you may want a copy for the shelf.

Otherwise, I'd suggest sampling it as an ebook -- a quick read for a plane or train trip or a couple of hours with your feet up. Kudos to the professor-author for tackling university issues in her story.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Love, Death, and Friends Forever, in FRIENDS & OTHER LIARS, by Kaela Coble

Highly engrossing, engaging, and unpredictable -- that's this winter's debut novel from Vermont author Kaela Coble, FRIENDS & OTHER LIARS. But is it a mystery? I'm not sure. It's certainly not a murder mystery; the only death in the book has already taken place before the action starts, and is clearly suicide. Yet some of the classic elements of a finely plotted mystery are very much present: red herrings, costly actions, mixed motives that need unearthing.

Moreover, the pacing is tight, the characters compelling, and ... I couldn't put it down.

Here's the setup: Ruby's visiting her home town (actually by Vermont standards, it's a small city) because of the death -- by suicide -- of one of her friends from the very tight group she survived high school with. But it's not a simple wake: The dead friend, Danny, quit the scene with a bundle of resentments against his friends, intense and painful and even cruel. And he's left his mom (who is hosting the wake) with a letter to read to the group:
You always talked about "the crew, the crew, the crew," like we were some untouchable entity. But when it comes to things that really matter, you guys barely knew each other. I think it's about time you did, if you're going to continue to pride yourselves on being friends since the womb. I know things about most of you that you didn't trust the crew to know.
In addition to this opening, Danny's left a letter for each of his four close friends, including Ruby and the man she's never quite coupled off with, Murphy. Each note reveals a secret that the person is deeply ashamed of. And he expect them to share these? Umm, the timing's not great. Plus there's a note he addressed to himself, which says simply, "I killed my stepfather."

It happens that Ruby already knows something about Danny's own "secret." But revealing that now, so many years after the fact, is going to complicate everything she's tried to put together in her life.

The book's chapters alternate time periods between the middle school and high school years and "now," and the critical question becomes, how is Danny, from the grave, orchestrating the threats of revelation among his former friends? And how will Ruby sustain the effects of her own secret being revealed?

This is a debut novel, but has few clues to that -- because the writing is smooth, clever, and expert. I'm curious to see what direction this author's next work will take.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Can a Murder Mystery Be Tender? Yes, with RAINBIRDS by Clarissa Goenawan

Soho Crime has just added to its Japanese mysteries by publishing the debut novel of Clarissa Goenawan, RAINBIRDS. It couldn't be much more different from the work of Fuminori Nakamura, whose spare, literary noir with crime twists (also from Soho Crime) comes with both power and significant darkness -- instead, Goenawan (born in Indonesia, now living in Singapore) has taken the formalized and gender-forced culture of Japan and embedded in it a work of deep tenderness and ardent storytelling.

The young man who narrates RAINBIRDS is named Ren Ishida; he is about to take his graduate degree in English literature when he gets word that his sister Keiko, whom he hasn't seen in years, is a murder victim, stabbed in the street on a rainy night in a small city quite distant from the siblings' original home in Tokyo. Since he's not needed in Tokyo -- his grad work is all done except for the final ceremony -- he races off to the scene of Keiko's death. And, in a quirky follow-up to the mystery of her life of the past few years, he agrees to temporarily take on her duties teaching English at a cram school. Will he discover who his sister was and why she was killed?

Goenawan clearly has written her own English language here -- no translator involved -- but there is a slight stiltedness to the prose that reminds me of well-done translations from the Japanese. I suspect this also reflects a difference in how a Pacific-Rim novel described different levels of thought and action, in contrast to an American or British one. Here's a sample from one of the more moving moments of RAINBIRDS, when Ren leaves his unexpected housing in the middle of the night to experience what his sister might have, at the same time of night, in the park where she was murdered:
I lay down on the ground, panting. The rain hit my face, but I stayed still and closed my eyes. All I could hear was the sound of rain.

My sister should have been able to guess nobody would come in this kind of weather. She would have known she was about to die. What was on her mind in those final minutes?  Had she thought about Mr. Tsuda, or the guy she had gone out with in Akakawa? Had she thought about me?

Since the day my sister had left Tokyo, I'd hoped for her return, but I'd never told her that. Had I been too proud, or too indifferent? If I'd asked her to come back, would she still be alive?

I clenched my fists. No use asking myself that now -- no answer would bring her back. The day my sister died, a part of me died, too.
Ren's continued probing of his sister's murder will give him a fresh view of who she was and what the relationship between the two of them, stranded by their embattled parents, had really, meant. At the same time, he questions his own behaviors -- perhaps very Japanese ones in terms of having sex with prostitutes and casual partners for one-night stands, but also his inability to commit to the woman who wants to marry him.

I would certainly read another book from Goenawan, and wonder whether the Japanese feel of her writing would continue if she places future novels in other locations, or whether it is somehow part of her personal style. Mystery readers who feel strongly about the conventions of the genre may not be happy with the way RAINBIRDS carves out its terrain. But those who already enjoy Asian literature (including work by Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami) and those accustomed to the genre bending that takes place in modern noir work will find themselves unexpectedly at home in this less dark, yet self-inquiring, work. Released today by Soho Crime (Soho Press).

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Tasting Cuba Through a New Mystery, Teresa Dovalpage's DEATH COMES IN THROUGH THE KITCHEN

Exploring another place and culture through an enjoyable mystery in that setting has a long tradition -- readers have long appreciated vintage English village life through Agatha Christie's books, and many who will never reach Italy treasure Donna Leon's Venice. Scandinavian noir takes us to Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland; the Brazilian series by the late Leighton Gage showed us a tender love of place and people coupled with the horror of crime driven by poverty and corruption.

Now it's a delight to be able to look inside Cuba in 2003 in DEATH COMES IN THROUGH THE KITCHEN, the first mystery from accomplished Havana-born author Teresa Dovalpage (Soho Crime). Dovalpage calls her book a literary mystery -- I'd rather liken it to the classic "recipe" mysteries, including the current Maine series by Barbara Ross and two food-focused series that Massachusetts author Edith Maxwell (aka Maddie Day) provides.

DEATH COMES IN THROUGH THE KITCHEN opens with the arrival of totally inexperienced, unskilled tourist Matt Sullivan, who hasn't really thought out how complicated his situation is -- but he's coming through customs with a slightly used wedding dress, a gorgeous one, that he plans to give to his Cuban sweetheart Yarmila in hopes of gaining a loving commitment from him.

The problem is, Matt really doesn't know Yarmi all that well -- she writes a cooking blog that describes delicious Cuban dishes and he's been following her via the Internet, in his role as a San Diego journalist trying to promote Latin cuisine. And his arrival during the height of Fidel Castro's police-maintained power means he'll be an under-the-table guest at a fiercely proletarian guest house, and an illicit suitor.

But by the end of the second chapter, we readers know that Yarmi has been murdered -- and Matt, the ambitious American who thought he'd found his lifeetime sweetheart, is now both bereaved, and a murder suspect ... to both the police and Yarmi's, ahem, other connections.

In fact, he's even imprisoned for a bit, and of course his passport is seized:
"Let's see. You meet this citizen, spend ten days with her, don't see her face to face again, send her tons of money," Lieutenant Martínez paused here for effect, "and come back ready to marry her. Is that correct?"

"Yes, compañera," Matt let the reference to "tons of money" slip "That's correct."
Soon Matt's desperation leads him to accepting help from a former police detective turned Santeria practitioner. But will the assistance be enough? And could there be too much benefit for all involved, by tagging Matt with the crime?

I thoroughly enjoyed this romp through Cuba via Matt's naive perceptions, and look forward to the next in this series from Dovalpage -- because there's sure to be more about this set of wild and eccentric characters. New from Soho Crime (Soho Press), released today.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

A Scientific Look Behind a Thriller, in MAKING THE MONSTER, from Kathryn Harkup

Kathryn Harkup calls herself a "science communicator," and her book A is for Arsenic: The Pisons of Agatha Christie made quite a hit a few years ago. Now she's tackled the work of another woman author -- or should we say teenager in this case, since Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was just 18, and saw it published at age 20!

Somewhat to my disappointment, MAKING THE MONSTER: THE SCIENCE BEHIND MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN rarely looks at the author of this classic thriller and sci-fi progenitor. But that's my own curiosity going in the wrong direction -- Harkup is clear from the start that what she's gathered are the scientific backgrounds to the many fresh creative efforts that Shelley drew together into the novel of Dr. Vincent Frankenstein and his animated cadaver, the monster himself. After a brief opening laying out Mary's personal troubles (ouch!), Harkup swiftly moves to the medical, chemical, and electrical amazements that were rocking the European world 200 years ago. I particularly enjoyed her assessments of alchemists and their theories as they played into the eventual novel Mary would craft:
The three alchemists that Mary chose as influences for Victor Frankenstein's early life -- Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus -- were three of the more dominant names in the history of alchemy as it was viewed in the early nineteenth century. However, the interests of these three historical figures demonstrate the huge range of philosophies held by so-called alchemists. Interestingly, none of the three would have called themselves alchemists and all of them wrote dismissively about those who tried to turn base metals into gold.
That's a fair sample of the writing that Harkup packs into this densely typeset, 300-page book. She moves quickly from one thorough assessment of scientific revelations to the next, including aspects of lack of refrigeration at the time, issues of anatomy, and even embalming:
Egyptian practices of mummification were for empowering the soul after death. The ancient Egyptians therefor saw no need to preserve everything in the body. Most of the internal organs were thus removed with only the heart being returned to the body. The bain was probably allowed to liquefy so it could be drained out of the skull. ... Bodies were dessicated using salts, left exposed to the elements, or dried out in ovens. Such techniques would not have been appropriate for Victor's requirements.
If you're able to overlook the slight queasiness of that liquefied brain part, and find you'd like to know more, MAKING THE MONSTER is meant for you! But it's also a great background text for those appreciating (or writing for!) TV shows like Criminal Minds, as well as grasping more of the background to Thomas Harris's grotesqueries. In other words, even if you can only digest a chapter or two now and then, there can be good reason to have this comprehensive reference on your shelf.

The book is published by Bloomsbury, and retains its British-isms. Great timing, for the 200th anniversary of Shelley's book. And if you're hungry for more about the author of Frankenstein herself, check out Fiona Sampson's book In Search of Mary Shelley -- Sampson is even appearing at times with Harkup in the United Kingdom, in this brave new era of appreciating the women who crafted potent thrillers and gothic horror at a time when they were better known as victims of Jack the Ripper and others.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Italian Mystery Series Debut from Mario Giordano, AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SICILIAN LIONS

What a great trend, to have European mysteries being translated at a newly rapid pace to bring fresh settings and attitudes to American readers! AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SILICILAN LIONS was written in German, even though Mario Giordano is the son of Italian immigrants to Germany. So its arrival in "the States" via Houghton Mifflin Harcourt meant translation by John Brownjohn (deftly!), with healthy dashes of Italian exclamations left in place. This confusion of heritage also means there's a lot of varied culture packed into the book, and the first few chapters are tough going -- Aunti Poldi, known formally to her new neighbors as Donna Poldina, is from Bavaria, a "free state" of Germany, and her formal name is Isolde Oberreiter. After some years of sorrow -- a challenging marriage, then widowhood and abrupt loss of funding, and some chaos in Africa that we never quite learn about -- Poldi has opted for a fresh start, near the sisters of her late husband, in Sicily. And with a view of the sea.

Adding to the mild confusion in the book's opening is the author's choice of double narrators: both Poldi herself in "third person," and her would-be writer nephew, to whom she is explaining what's taken place whenever he's back to visit her. After a while, I settled into the routine, and by about one-third through, I was totally in Poldi's pocket, eager to see how she would assess a crime scene and simultaneously open doors for her own passionate sense of life as crammed with love and erotic delight (or pierced by the lack of them!). How do the two narrations work? Here's a snippet, as Poldi's seaside walk leads her to the corpse of the missing hired helper Valentino she's been searching for:
When Poldi came nearer a cloud of flies rose from the remains of his head.
With a groan, she knelt down beside him. Just crouched beside the corpse, whimpering softly as if that age-old song of grief could bring him back to life. The big pebbles hurt her knees, but she scarcely felt the pain. She grasped his left hand, which was as cold and hard and dry as the stones on the beach.
"Oh, Valentino, why did you never say a word?"

She fondled his cold hand and stared at the sea and the rising sun, to avoid having to look at him. It wasn't her first dead body and she wasn't easily shocked, but the sight of the mangled face affected her deeply. She turned her head away and tried to concentrate on his hand, on his dirty fingernails and the familiar tattoo.

At length, however, she forced herself to look.

"That was when I made Valentino a promise," she told me later. "An almost automatic process was at work, that's why. It was genetically conditioned."

"You mean a kind of ... criminalistic hereditary reflex?" I asked, remembering the psychology course I'd dropped out of.

"Bullsh**. It was the hunting instinct." She looked at me. "Either you've got it or you haven't."
From here on, Auntie Poldi is hunting for the killer.  It won't be easy -- she's making friends in her new neighborhood, but she's still a ways from feeling accepted by Sicily, and her outbursts of Bavarian language (and insight) aren't always welcome. With a marvelous cast of characters, from the sexy (but unable to commit) police investigator, to the wealthy landowner obsessed with the German poet Hölderlin, to her new French friend Valérie, to her helpful and eager sisters-in-law, Poldi plunges into Sicilian entanglements. And crime solving -- she's determined to be the first to reveal the killer. (Uh-oh.)

Even during the slow first few chapters, something about Poldi and her nephew pulled me into this "amateur-sleuth" mystery -- and by the second half of the book, I was scooting away from other work on the flimsiest of excuses, just to catch up with Poldi's next charge forward. I liked the clever chapter openers, too, which hinted at what would emerge. And I found the ending delightful -- including its clear opening for more Auntie Poldi books ahead. (This interview with the author reveals that two more are already written.)

I already have three people in mind to whom I'd like to give a copy of this rollicking, passionate, and engaging mystery -- perhaps the best metric of how good a book is.  Looking forward to more. Forza, Aunti Poldi!

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Investigator in Pain, Revealing the Cost of Murder, in R. J. Ellory's THE DEVIL AND THE RIVER

The moment I opened the American publication of R. J. Ellory's THE DEVIL AND THE RIVER, I knew I was hooked. Although I spread my reading time for the nearly 400 pages over several days, I would have loved to skip work and just stay on the couch with this book. Not only does it probe life in a sleepy Mississippi town, with a pointed finger trailing through voodoo as well as murder -- but it probes the residue of the Vietnam War through the flashbacks and soul-deep damage to investigator John Gaines. Here's the first paragraph, under the chapter heading "Wednesday, July 24, 1974":
When the rains came, they found the girl's face. Just her face. At least that was how it appeared. And then came her hand -- small and white and fine like porcelain. It surfaced from the black mud and showed itself. Just her face and her hand, the rest of her still submerged. To look down the riverbank and see just her hand and her face was surreal and disturbing. And John Gaines -- who had lately, and by providence or default, come to the position of sheriff of Whytesburg, Breed County, Mississippi, and before that had come alive from the nine circles of hell that was the war in Vietnam, who was himself born in Lafayette, a Louisianan from the start -- crouched on his haunches and surveyed the scene with a quiet mind and a steady eye.
This is what we demand of our best crime-solving people: a quiet mind and a steady eye, and an inner recognition of the horrors and pain embedded in violence. If only it could all be balanced neatly! But as Gaines will soon discover, to probe the roots of this death will also mean reactivating his own most terrible memories of the war, and facing what it has done to him.

The body surfacing from the muddy river bank turns out to be that of Nancy Denton. When she was just 16, two decades earlier, she'd gone for a walk in the Whytesburg woods -- and never returned. Very quickly, John Gaines realizes hers is not a recent death, but perhaps one that dates to the day of her disappearance. How has the body been preserved? What actions were taken before it found a resting place? And who felt the need to kill this lovely young woman?

Gaines is an inexperienced sheriff, driven by poignant and forceful memories of killing and survival in the Vietnam jungles, as well as by a longing to have his returned-to-America life carry some goodness, some meaning, and deep justice. He soon finds that Nancy's teen years took place in a small group of close friends, where romances were both budding and frustrated. And a powerful Southern family, the Wades, is somehow involved in covering up what happened 20 years earlier.

Gaines's most direct route back to the "cold case" is through another veteran, this one of an earlier war: Michael Webster, one of the lucky ones who returned from live action in World War II, minus all the others in his fighting group. Could it be Michael, with his own raw PTSD, who killed Nancy Denton? One of the Wade family members, defending Michael, challenges Gaines to go easy on this veteran so similar in some ways to himself:
"You are perhaps made of stronger stuff than Lieutenant Webster. Some men are just a little more fragile than others, you know?"

"You're telling me that he is the victim here? Are you f**ing crazy?"

"Oh, I am saying nothing of the sort, Sheriff. I am well aware that a heinous crime has been perpetrated here, that some poor girl was abused and murdered, but this was all twenty years ago ... I just think Michael Webster is incapable of establishing any kind of stable ground for his own defense, and I would like to think I am assisting him with his constitutional right to fair representation when it comes to his day in court."

"This is just bullsh**, if you don't mind me saying, Mr. Wade."
What Gaines suspects, beyond the possible violent act in the past by Webster, is that Wade himself is somehow involved in the coverup, for reasons of his own. Or could Wade have been the killer?

It's complicated. And Sheriff John Gaines can't get to the truth without sorting his own war memories and what they have done to his capacity to be human, to be caring, to take part in community.

Don't be confused by earlier releases of the book in the United Kingdom; this is the American release, orchestrated by Overlook. If, like me, you carry conflicting emotions and memories of the Vietnam War years, here is a potent narrative in which to reconsider your own past, as well as the country's. And if you value a crime novel that probes the vulnerability and courage of the mind -- as Charles Todd has done with his World War I-era detectives, for instance -- you'll want the book on your shelf for repeated reading. Add it also to novels of the South and the grief and beauty entwined there.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Excellent British Traditional Mystery from Rebecca Tope, THE HAWKSHEAD HOSTAGE

It's a small world, true enough. But in the world of mystery fiction, it's also a very wide world with more good books and skilled authors than most people can catch up with. Still, I'm always somehow surprised when I find an established author I've never heard of ... and delighted, because a list of previous books comes along with the discovery!

This season I finally read a book by British author Rebecca Tope, thanks to publisher Allison & Busby sending an after-publication copy. Tope's current two series are one set in the Cotswolds (a place I'd love to walk sometime) and one set in the Lake District (dear to my heart as a lifelong fan of the Swallows and Amazons children's books).  THE HAWKSHEAD HOSTAGE is in the Lake District group and features florist Persimmon "Simmy" Brown, who also appears in five other mysteries.

The action starts at Simmy's flower shop, where life is a bit dull in the summer tourist season, which pulls people outside for hiking and exploration but doesn't impel them to buy bouquets. Simmy is also trying to recover from the loss of one of her employees, who has gone to work at an upscale hotel instead for more action -- which turns out to involve Simmy after all, when Melanie dashes into the shop to announce that she's snagged Simmy a bit floral assignment, arranging massive flower vases for the hotel some distance away, sure to use two half-days per week ... and be worth being paid accordingly. Simmy's not sure this is a good thing, but she starts to adapt to the notion, and en route to the hotel to get acquainted, she provides a ride to a young hiker, Ben, whom she already knows. And Ben in turn is close friends with Simmy's remaining employee, an unusual youngster named Bonnie. Ben takes off to kill some time while Simmy meets the hotel staff, so she doesn't realize there's a problem until she returns to her car and her phone, which she'd left there:
Out of habit, Simmy switched on the phone, and within a few seconds it gave the little song that told her she had a message. Bonnie, she supposed, with a question about the shop. It was a voicemail, not a text, which suggested it might be urgent. With a sigh, Simmy put the phone to her ear, reluctant to discover what mistake the girl might have made without having recourse to advice.

"Simmy!" came a high-pitched voice, full of panic. "There's a body here. Under the trees, at the very top end of the lake. I don't know what to do. Well, I'll have to call 999. Who knows when you'll get this ... Hey!" The phone went silent in her hand, even though she continued to listen for further speech.

It was Ben. The last syllable had been closer to a scream than a shout. ... Not until that final word did she understand that this was real, and that the boy was not merely panicked but terrified.
When the body's found but Ben isn't, it's clear whoever killed the man on the hotel grounds must have taken Ben as a captive to protect themselves. Simmy of course feels responsible -- she gave the young man a ride, and he's gone missing.

But all her efforts run into dead ends, and it's Bonnie who puts the pieces and clues together to guess at what has happened to Ben and where to look for him. It takes so long to reach a solution -- what shape will he be in? Alive, dead, injured? And is there still a way that Simmy can make sure the young people survive to confront the criminals?

A lively read, jumping from one point of view to another, and not entirely easy for someone who hasn't read any of the other books in the series -- but well worth it, to realize what a good run of books by Tope is waiting to be read. In fact, since she's worked with three English-countryside series (the third is her West Country Mysteries), there's a big stack ready. That's great news!

(Tope's website is out of date, but it's not hard to find lists of her titles elsewhere.)

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Brief Mention: Las Vegas Noir from David Kranes, ABRACADABRA

There's a new-ish trend among university presses that's fascinating to observe: an urge to publish fiction, including thrillers and mysteries, set in the press's home state. When the University of Minnesota Press began to publish the Scandinavian/Minnesotan fiction of Vidar Sundstøl, I became an instant fan. And now the University of Nevada Press presents David Kranes with his outrageous and delightful detective tale, ABRACADABRA.

Kranes is an established author of seven other novels and many short stories, and lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he is a professor emeritus at University of Utah. He clearly knows Las Vegas well -- but more importantly, he's willing to risk his dignity by creating a detective with a head injury that takes him well beyond "the facts of the case" -- and crime-solving assistants like the Bloody Marys (a network of cocktail waitresses) and his own team of celebrity impersonators (Shaquille O'Neal, anyone?). As a detective, Elko Wells is far outside the usual (and he used to be a pro football player, another wild aspect).

Then again, the case Elko tackles in ABRACADABRA is also outside the box -- literally. Lena Goodson wants him to find her husband Mark, who, trapped in a very uncomfortable marriage, has just escaped her, by leaving backstage during a magician's act that should have resulted in his simple reappearance in the traditional black stage box.

Plenty of fun and entertainment here, along with magic tricks and classic cons, as well as a sense of the mysteries of love and life and of course impersonation, whether intentional or not, and its, shall we say, spiritual aspects.

Grab this one for a very unusual blend of offbeat detection, caper, crime, and discovery.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Scary and Compelling Thriller from Carter Wilson, MISTER TENDER'S GIRL

Coupled with the title, the cover on Carter Wilson's fifth book, MISTER TENDER'S GIRL, scared me -- in fact, I found the combo so creepy that I almost skipped reading the book. And that would have been a mistake, because this is one of the smartest, well-twisted, enjoyable thrillers I've read this year.

Wilson's area of the mystery/thriller genre has been labeled "dark domestic thrillers." In MISTER TENDER'S GIRL, the action opens in Manchester, New Hampshire, a gritty, once-industrial city that now hosts a fine crop of tech firms and coffee shops, along with a charmingly diverse population. It's the coffee shop aspect that matters here -- Alice Gray, whose name was originally Alice Hill, owns a coffee shop, and in addition, a  colonial-style, century-old building nearby where she lives: In one building, her low-keysecond-floor apartment where she lives (quirkily, she has no knives in her home), and a third-floor space rented to a quiet tenant she barely knows. Things are going along reasonably well for her. She rarely misses England, where at age 14 she was brutally attacked by a pair of teens like herself ... and her carefully constructed new life lets her mostly hide from her past.

Until, one day, an online dating site she's signed up for, to satisfy a friend who thinks her life looks lonely, gives her a match from a name deep in her past: "Mister Tender," the name of the most outrageous character in a graphic novel series created by her now-dead father. The horrors are about to open up once again.

The creepiest part of the disaster Alice is walking into is the sense, even in Manchester, NH, that she's being watched by some evil linked to her past. Someone online knows about the crime against her, the killing of her father, and even where she was this week -- in fact, it looks like she has multiple stalkers, and no safe place to go or person to be with. Add her very odd mother to that list, and an ex-boyfriend, and people back in England, where the bizarre and cruel changes of her life began.

Wilson's skill places the creepiness smack in the middle of our ordinary modern lives, where our computers are close at hand and our past is increasingly incapable of being erased from the Internet.  For Alice, that means there's no safety possible:
Today is the fourteenth anniversary of my attempted murder. I had almost forgotten, but my phone screen reminds me. October eighteenth. I remember it mostly as it was referred to in court, the solicitors repeatedly saying, "On the night of October 18 ..." I will hold no memorial on this day, carry no special reflections. I'll just try to get through it as I do every other.
So she lets her employees know she'll get to work late, and almost without thought, she follows the one clue she's been given to the stalkers in her life: She enters a site called "www.mistertender.com" where there's a message board of people obsessed with her life. She wants to type "LEAVE ME ALONE" and she enters the site, without identifying herself yet --
But before I type a single thing, a direct message appears in the inbox of this forum. It's from the master of ceremonies himself, Mr. Interested.

I click to open it. The message only has two words:

Hello, Alice.
This level of threat soon puts Alice on the run, back to the site of the original crime and colliding with her would-be killers. Yet someone, or maybe multiple someones, continues to track her and communicate.

This is a true page-turner, an assembly of threats that feel so close to home that the twists of plot become both chilling and agonizing -- who could be knocking at our own social media doors?

Wilson's finale provides even more twists, and a threat level that's over the top, but mercifully quick to resolve. Whether Alice will survive is always in doubt. Along with whether she'll ever feel safe again.

A must-read for anyone who can handle the suspense of wondering whether their own Internet-connected life might be, shall we say, just a bit risky after all? Best of all, Wilson's created a tie to graphic novel work that's stunning. I'd recommend this one for all thriller readers, with the reassurance that in spite of the terrifying aspects of the cover and what "might" happen, the book's resolution is highly satisfying -- go for it.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Spymaster Mick Herron's Stand-Alone, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED

I'm a major fan of Mick Herron's "Slow Horses" espionage novels. They're British and embedded in the classic MI5 framework -- but with a major twist that provides protagonists who are "failed spies," people who've messed up some major operation but can't be simply fired because they already know too much. Stashed among the misfits at Slough (pronounced Slow) House, they wither in their own estimation and in the noxious atmosphere provided by their "head of station."

So when I opened Herron's January 2018 offering, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED, I kept expecting some connection back to the Slow Horses team, and when 26-year-old Maggie Barnes began to suspect she was being recruited for either industrial or international espionage, I started turning the pages even more rapidly than before. (Herron's storytelling is compelling ... his books are really, really hard to put down.)

My mistake. Unless I missed a very small mention (and I don't think I did), none of the Slow Horses spies turn up in this stand-alone suspense novel. Maggie, turned loose as a temporary infiltration agent, could be any one of us -- how would you do if thrust into a life-and-death, possible prison condition in a matter of hours after work one day? Who could save you??

Herron shapes a novella of psychological suspense in THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED. I won't shelve it on my Slow Horses section, but rather next to some work by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell in her most twisted voice) and maybe even Stephen King, for the all-too-human pain involved. It's quite a read ... hope you pick up a copy to experience this other side of Herron's craft.

Slow Horses fans, keep in mind June 5, 2018, when the next in this series releases in the US: London Rules. Many thanks to Soho Crime for helping Herron keep these on a roll.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

South African Noir, MY NAME IS NATHAN LUCIUS, by Mark Winkler

Nothing is simple in Mark Winkler's crime fiction -- least of all the motivation of the protagonist. In MY NAME IS NATHAN LUCIUS (his "fourth" title but actually his second novel, originally titled Wasted), Winkler provides a setup that should be transparent: Nathan Lucius is telling his own story, in detail, including his emotions and his, umm, peculiar forms of unclean mind. We should know whether he committed any crimes, and why -- right?

Well, no. Not the way Winkler spins this very usual and gritty work of noir. Nathan Lucius, age 31, an ad salesman for a newspaper, has unusual filters for what's important to comment on, and what's not. Running, drinking, jerking off ("wanking" in British slang) -- those are his primary concerns. Almost accidentally, in his preferred life of days-all-the-same, he's made a friend, the owner of a secondhand shop. This owner, Madge, is dying of cancer, and soon we realize Madge and Nathan are considering how he might help her to end her life.

But just how twisted is Nathan's version of his possibly crime-leavened life going to get? It's tempting to say, "not twisted," because Nathan appears to narrate everything just as it happens. But check out this interlude, when he first is questioned about Madge's death, by Inspector Morris:
I'm expecting a tough Cockney from a BBC cop show. I suppose it's the name. Morris has a heavy Afrikans accent. It would be a mistake to associate the accent with stupidity. People have done that before. I'm not going to. The room is so small that he has to squeeze himself against the wall to get around the table. He sits opposite me. He thanks me for coming. I put my sad face one. I tell him the facts as I'd told them to Mrs du Toit.

"So you've known the deceased for ...?"

"Four or five years," I tell him. [...]

"Forgive me, I have to ask. Was there anything, ah, inappropriate about your relationship?"

"Goodness, no." I sound just like Madge.
Blurbs for the book in advance talked about its exploration of violence, trauma, social responsibility, memory, morality ... I would rather say it's a daring adventure with an unreliable and unlikable narrator who nevertheless turns us into his witnesses, for court and elsewhere, with a related crazy mix of horror, appalled laughter, and insistence on knowing what comes next. Don't read this unless you're ready for very, very dark (think Dave Zeltserman even more than Thomas Harris). But if you do pick it up, clear the schedule, because you'll need to finish it before you'll be able to do anything else.

And then, you'll want to wash your hands. Twice.

From Soho Crime (Soho Press) comes this unforgettable transplant from a distant continent, straight into our most unsettling postmodern unease.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Third Thriller from Douglas Schofield, KILLING PACE

Sometimes books arrive here for review after they've already been released -- and KILLING PACE is one of those. I wasn't wild about the title, and the (misleading) cover suggested a sort of Celtic time lapse ... but I finally opened the book and then quickly lost track of time, absorbed in this powerfully told and complicated page-turning thriller set in Florida and in Sicily. It's Douglas Schofield's third, but not part of a series; he tends to write female protagonists (and explains something about that here -- in ways that interest me a great deal). And his extensive background in criminal prosecution, as well as globe-trotting, makes him an ideal source for his own plots.

In KILLING PACE, a woman's been held near-prisoner by her presumed fiancé, but it only takes a small breath of freedom for her memories of another life to flood back. Soon we're chasing major criminals in Italy with a woman of another name who works for the U.S. Customs investigation team -- same person? Some answers flash quickly; others, like who's behind the crimes around her (parts smuggling; baby kidnapping) are slower to mesh. But the twists keep coming, and so does the action.

Let's say, for the sake of not throwing any spoilers, that at least one strong woman in KILLING PACE has an Italian grandmother, which gives her definite advantages when sleuthing in Italy, of course. Here's a sample from later in the book:
She could live with being the roughly assembled product of Silvana Pace's obsessions.

Law and justice ...

Today, Laura Pace was a fugitive from the law, hunted for crimes she didn't commit.

Law and justice ...

Today, a police officer had broken the law to prevent her from being arrested.

Law and justice ...

Tonight, she was lying in a bed in a safe house run by a secret United Nations intelligence until whose activities probably violated a score of U.S. federal statutes.

Nonna would completely understand.
Intrigued? It's quite a ride, really well written, and convinced me that I want to read more from this author! The publisher is Minotaur, and I'm sure there are more titles on the way.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.