Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Entertaining British Crime Fiction from Peter Lovesey, BEAU DEATH

American Thanksgiving is becoming a very long sort of holiday -- schools close early in the week or don't open at all, and turkey consumption only occupies one day of the break. On the other days, a good mystery is a worthwhile diversion. In the case of BEAU DEATH, now is the time to order for the December 5 release via Soho Crime; local stores and online ones can handle your order and make sure you get a first-day-of-release copy of this charming British mystery.

Fans of Peter Lovesey's "Peter Diamond Investigations" know they'll get more than plot, and more than the performance of Diamond and his police team in Bath -- they find a rich and satisfying feast of eccentric and sometimes sweet, sometimes dangerous, quintessential British figures. In BEAU DEATH, the discovery of a skeleton in a building being demolished leads Diamond into the small city's elegant past, when the flashy Beau Nash ruled the stylish crowd.

In fact, if Diamond's difficult supervisor Georgina Dallymore gets her highly political way, Diamond may need to don the traditional garb that members of the Beau Nash Society wear, in order to investigate possible victims as well as murderers. (And he won't exactly be armed.) As in so many others in this series, Diamond also faces all-in-the-arts pressure from his lover Paloma, and urgency from his rising investigator Ingeborg, each pushing him in another direction.

The first 75 pages is admittedly a bit slow and tame, as Diamond is "schooled" by the three women. But when Ingeborg lands the best blow, it brings both Diamond and the book back to traditional fast-paced and risky crimesolving. Diamond tunes in as Ingeborg points him back toward the scene of the murder they've uncovered:
"Under the rubble. Who knows what may be buried there? Is is still cordoned off?"

A chill of guilt went through him. He couldn't answer. He hadn't been back. He stood still, lost for words.

Ingeborg wasn't sparing him. "We don't have any idea who the killer of the man in the loft was except he used the place to hide the body. Chances are he lived there as a tenant. You can't live in a place without leaving traces of yourself. Who knows what might turn up if we do a dig? ... Aren't you listening, guv? I'm talking about the stuff he might have discarded. An empty cigarette packet, a lottery ticket, a teaspoon, a glove, a hairclip, a foreign coin. It helps build a picture of who was living there. I don't need to tell you this."

She was right. His mindset was all wrong. He'd given so much mental energy to learning about Beau bloody Nash that basic procedures had been neglected.
Murders multiply, but for potent reasons of his own, Diamond doesn't dare allow his boss to call in other officers. He'll have to push his team to new roles and new results.

Once the crimesolving got active, I had lots of fun with BEAU DEATH, chuckling at Peter Lovesey's dry humor and guessing ahead on what might be revealed in the next few pages. No nightmares from this one, no gruesome scenes, just a cheerful level of suspense and discovery. Some of it. of course, about Diamond himself.

Insulate your holiday season with books like this one, and things can stay in proportion. Some joy, some humor, and some long evenings visiting a classic British location in the hands of a master storyteller with more than 30 mysteries under his belt. Too many awards to Lovesey to even list them, but one of the more recent was a Lifetime Achievement award at Malice Domestic. BEAU DEATH arrives across the Atlantic thanks to Soho Crime, the international and exhilarating imprint of Soho Press.

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


Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Vibrant New Poke Rafferty Bangkok Thriller from Timothy Hallinan, FOOLS' RIVER

There are a lot of great reasons to grab the new Bangkok-set thriller by Tim Hallinan. Readers of his Poke Rafferty series actually "need" this book ASAP, because the little family that Poke Rafferty loves and protects in corrupt and dangerous Bangkok has bonded to readers' hearts. How is Poke's pregnant wife doing? And the couple's brilliant bu wounded adopted-street-child daughter Miaow? What about Miaow's friends, whom we've also become attached to, seeing them through the half-incredulous amazement that Poke feels as he comes to appreciate, love, and yes, try to rescue them?

But if you're a stranger to this series, here are some other reasons: A chance to "see" Bangkok in its heartbreaking complexity (instead o of laughing at the pain the way John Burdett's books do). A willingness to meet and care about complex characters in the midst of very human and very dangerous stresses. Eagerness to see how a skilled author who can blend suspense and attachment on a single palette will craft the necessary (and terrifying) twists of a page-turner.

Poke's attention is mostly on his pregnant wife right now -- the couple hadn't expected to add a child to the already complicated and tender household they've formed. So it takes sserious persuasion from Miaow to have him look into the disappearance of the dad of Miaow's almost-boyfriend Edward. Once Poke tunes in to the crisis, he's quick to see a pattern -- one that means Edward's dad has a very short life ahead of him, if indeed he's still alive somewhere in the crowded city.

Don't worry about the title, FOOLS' RIVER. It's almost irrelevant, part of a different layer of suspense. Attention belongs most of all with Poke in his urgent search for the totally immoral scam artists and killers who have Edward's dad. And with the power of a 48-hour deadline, Hallinan packs the action and danger, page after page.

Don't try to do anything else. This is what a truly fine thriller is for: to let you, force you, to ignore the rest of your life and accept that all the love that needs saving, all the life that matters, is in the next chapter. Yes, the book really just covers 48 hours -- so hang in there for the next in the series. [Too bad the author and publisher, Soho, can only produce one per year ... but this year at least, there's an extra helping of Hallinan's Bangkok adventures in a compact and haunting tale included in Soho's holiday special, The Usual Santas, about two Bangkok street kids with a significant set of discoveries at the holiday season. I can't get it out of my thoughts ... or do I men, heart?]

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

Top-Notch British Thriller from L V Hay, THE OTHER TWIN

THE OTHER TWIN is a true breakthrough book: a thriller so intricate and compelling that it leaps away from previous books by the same author, into new and dangerous terrain. Presented as a "debut thriller" by Orenda Books, it hit the shelves a week ago. The author was previously known as Lucy V Hay -- but it makes good sense to see her writing drastically shifted in this new book. And the androgynous "L V" name also fits, in an entirely different way.

The book opens with an ominous scene of emotional abuse, quickly flashing instead to Poppy, a young woman way over her head in drinking and casual sex, trying to pull herself together after an all-night binge and the "mother of all hangovers," so to speak. Hers in the voice that gives us most of the story in THE OTHER TWIN. She has a past crammed with love and loss at the seacoast city of Brighton that she walked away from a year earlier, and her party life (not really balanced by her other-city job) is this cover for confused regrets and pain. Chapter by chapter, she faces the complicated mess of her past, propelled by what takes her "home again" at the start of the action: the supposed suicide-by-jumping of her younger sister India.

But there's a second voice that whispers to us periodically -- perhaps a killer's words and contorted emotions, as he enacts the twisted reality of "She Who Must Be Obeyed." Hay's mastery of suspense is echoed in the eerie sense of evil and manipulation that oozes from these scenes. Can Poppy, searching for the truths behind her sister's death, escape the seeping and vicious mind that's calling the plays around her?

The book walks an interesting knife edge of noir and violence: Much of the cruelty exerted by the shadowy perpetrators is so indirect, so disguised, that it never quite crosses into being graphic -- but the horror is even more haunting in this form.

Expect twists all the way through, and a final one that's as painful as being knocked over on a cement surface -- everybody bleeds from the heart, and as the powerful resolution arrives, it's clear there will be no escape from hurt. But maybe, maybe, there can be some escape from being hopelessly lost in a net of deceit.

Well worth reading. Yes, the title points to some meaning in the story -- but not what you might expect. And it's a stand-alone, at least so far, so there's no need to dig into Hay's earlier work -- which you can scan if you like at her (somewhat difficult to navigate) website. This title comes via Orenda Books, where the list of really fine mysteries is becoming impressive.

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

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Charming Holiday Mystery in Maine from Lea Wait, THREAD THE HALLS

Maine author Lea Wait's newest "Mainely Needlepoint Mystery" is a true charmer, packed with seasonal and Maine-winter details, as well as the sweetly developing romance between Angie Curtis -- once a private investigator of the gritty sort out West, and now "back home" in a New England seaside village -- and Patrick West.

Patrick, whose hands were badly burned in an earlier title in the series, is about to celebrate his first New England traditional Christmas with Angie, when his famous film actress mother Skye West announces she'll be on set with them, so to speak -- along with her co-star, screenwriter, and more, from a film she's been working on in Europe that's rumored to have major problems. Toss that dream of an intimate lovers' holiday out the (frosty) window!

Soon Angie is also tugged into the famous family's last-minute decorating and feasting plans. Top this off with a rush needlepoint assignment that engages all the members of the collaborative she's been developing. Good thing there's some mistletoe available to prompt a kiss. But on the other hand, discovering a dead body in the snowy field behind the movie star's mansion seems unlikely to endear Angie to anyone -- not even the local police, who have their own reasons for mixed feelings about the half-pro, half-amateur sleuth that Angie is becoming.

Wait's Mainely Needlepoint series, much like her earlier "Shadows" one, includes chapter-opening tags describing antique needlepoint samplers and their creators, which adds a special pleasure to her books. In addition, she's in her glory when piling holiday details into a story -- this time, including the arrival of Santa Claus (and a moose!) on a boat in the small town's harbor. (There's a recipe at the end, too -- mmm.)

The book is neatly layered with tensions and suspense. And if Angie doesn't seem like she's doing much active sleuthing this time (the discovery of the murderer isn't really from her efforts), well, she's got her hands full trying to defend herself in a lot of directions! Wait's own track record promises a happy ending, but there seem no guarantees until the final few pages. As a result, this is a snow-sprinkled, holly-merry, twinkling page-turner of a mystery. I enjoyed every twist, and the book's comforting feel of community support will move it onto several of my gift lists for this holiday season.

No need to read the previous five titles in this series before THREAD THE HALLS. But they do add depth to Angie in particular, so it will be fun to gather them and have a good holiday reading binge. Candy-cane-stirred cocoa and sugar cookies optional (or dangerous, depending on which chapter you're reading!).

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Boston Noir With a Dangerous "Backbeat" in Clea Simon's WORLD ENOUGH

She's quietly brought us four different semi-mystical cat and amateur sleuth mystery series over the past decade -- and some edgy nonfiction before that. Now Boston author Clea Simon lets her inner rock 'n roller out of the back room and rips into a dark and compelling murder mystery of Boston's music nightlife in WORLD ENOUGH, due to release on November 1.

The book roots in Simon's own passion for rock 'n roll and the feisty bands that brought original rock to "the scene." She's been a denizen of that world herself -- check out her moody and detailed article from this past summer, reviving memories of the Kenmore Square nightclub called the Rathskeller, better known as "the Rat":
When R.E.M. wanted to play a club, the night after headlining a show at Harvard, they dropped in on the Rat. When David Bowie and Iggy Pop were in town for a gig at the Harvard Square Theater in 1977 and wanted to hear some music, they hung out there. Although the club’s reputation had declined before its 1997 closing, by then the grungy music room had hosted the likes of The Police, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Joan Jett, Husker Du, Metallica, and a thousand local bands — including some, like The Cars, that would go on to worldwide fame. [Read the whole article here.]
Tara Winton's on a nostalgia trip of sorts, when she hangs out in a local club to hear a music group from the old days, the Whirled Shakers. Their music "still gets her going," even though she knows she's part of an aging group of fans who miss the old locales that have long since become condos, parking garages, the new city where youth and love flourish. The groupies may still own leather jackets, but their hair's gone gray and they look, hmm, kind of out of shape if they get up to dance. There's a long route back to the good old days, but the passage is one way only and Tara is grieving.

Soon there's more than just the "scene" to mourn -- one of the musicians, Frank, is dead, supposedly some strange form of suicide, and Tara needs to attend the funeral. Reflecting on the crowd that still shares these moments of her life, Tara has to admit: "We're sickly. We have fewer successful marriages and happy families. Too many of us have died."

But it's just a matter of bad luck, isn't it? Like Frank's death?

Maybe not. And when Tara accepts a journalistic assignment to retrace the old bands and track down the players -- both the musicians and the most vital of their groupies -- she begins to realize she's missed a lot of signals over the years. Things were never as safe or loving as she wanted to believe. Even her own ex-husband is pulling away from her friendship now, leaving her newly vulnerable as she pries apart the old frictions and competitions, to find out what's now going on around her.

Simon's murderous imagination, honed over years of having her mysteries creep further and further to the dark side, gives us Tara's believable naiveté and frustrated persistence. She also paints in vivid color the sense of the really hot music as a group grows into its own legend, as well as the abrupt emergence of a star:
Chris Crack -- the name stuck, despite its affectation -- didn't enter so much as pounce. A glad rock throwback in a woman's eyelet blouse two sizes too small, he leapt onstage, grabbed the mic stand and swung it -- narrowly missing Jerry -- before opening his mouth for a caterwaul that had Nieve at the bar looking up, open-mouthed. Dropping from the falsetto scream into a rough baritone, he delivered the lyrics of the Aught Nine oldie -- "Beer for Fools" -- as if it were the gospel. And when he tore into a new song -- Tara, at least, had never heard it -- he pushed back into that falsetto, letting it fade away into something as soft as a lover's sigh,

By the end of the set, he had lost the shirt, and under its sheen of sweat, his pale torso glistened. He looked like what he was fated to become: a rock star. And all five people who heard him that night knew it.
Tara's search for the truth of both the rock 'n roll past and her present conflicts takes her down dark paths in rough company. And the answers turn out to have everything to do with how human we all are ... and how the backbeat can seize us and turn us into wild ones, even now.

The publisher is Severn House; the book's available for pre-order now, and since Severn House doesn't have huge first printings, a pre-order might be wise for collectors. Simon's mid-air twist into this sharp-clawed noir is well worth reading, and I hope is the first of more to come.

Oh, and if you don't know the source of the title ... try looking up "world enough and time" in your search bar (smile).

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

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Story Collections to Savor, John Sandford, Soho Crime, D. P. Lyle


There's something about the on-rushing holiday season that makes a good collection of short stories especially welcome -- a way to grab some entertainment in a small pocket of time, a chance to savor the compact and intense writing of an already favorite author or sample an unfamiliar one, and at its best, a way to place the heavy demands of the American end-of-year culture back into perspective.

So I'm delighted to have three interesting collections to describe. I hope you'll take advantage of the season and dip in.

First -- because the editor is among the top crime fiction authors of our time, and because his introduction is so significant -- consider THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2017, edited by the inimitable John Sandford. Author of some 40 novels, best known for his "Prey" series (it started with Rules of Prey about 1989), Sandford also has a gift few authors can boast: He can write compellingly ABOUT writing. Here, from his introduction, are some guidelines for the ideal short story:
The story must be tight and well written; a novel can take a few fumbles without much damage, but a short story really suffers from them.

The opening must be catchy and quick and set a mood -- the story should be rolling with the first line. No space here for the dark and stormy night. ... [He quotes from a story by C. J. Box.]

Scene-setting should be integral to the story, part of the fabric rather than long blocks of exposition. The scene-setting ideally should contribute to the mood and texture of the story. [This, he illustrates with a PI -- that is, private investigator -- story from Charles John Harper.]

Now, we get to character. The physical description of the characters is critical, and what the reader sees in this physical description should tell us much about the character's personality. There's a reason for that: it creates an immediate image in the reader's mind, so that laborious explication isn't necessary [Fedora, double-breasted suit, smoking Lucky Stroke Green? Or an excerpt from Dan Bevacqua's story of a thin man with an orange beard and a tattoo over each eyebrow.]

And finally: there has to be some resolution. You can't just end a short story; you have to wind it up. 
Sandford's picks for the collection -- drawn from a larger pool provided by Otto Penzler -- also include stories by Jeffrey Deaver, Brendan DuBois, Loren Estleman, Craig Johnson, William Kent Krueger, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others. They are all over the map (and timeline), and they demonstrate the many delicious flavors of suspense, risk, complexity, and satisfaction that a mystery story can best serve up. Yumm.

Should you happen to be frustrated by today's phrases that carefully edge around the religious roots of year-end festivals, here's balm for your wounds: THE USUAL SANTAS, a bluntly Christmas-focused collection from the always inspiring Soho Crime unit of Soho Press, with an introduction by British crime fiction leader Peter Lovesey. Lovesey's intro chants gleefully the wide range of mystery types included here: from cyber criminals to Sherlock Holmes, and from dark noir to tender kindness to deep mysteries of life and death (including a ghost story).

If you're already savoring some of the Soho Crime authors, this collection is like a dessert buffet. Recognize any of these names? Helene Tursten, Mick Herron, Martin Limón, Timothy Hallinan, Teresa Dovalpage, Mette Ivie Harrison, Colin Cotterill, Ed Lin, Stuart Neville, Ted Goldberg, Henry Chang, James R. Benn, Lene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis, Sujita Massey, Gary Corby, Cara Black, Stephanie Barron, and of course Lovesey himself ... I was drooling just from the Contents page, mentally rehearsing the locations from Thailand to Chinatown, England and Ireland, Utah, Scandinavia ... and timelines that include Ancient Greece as well as World War II.

I haven't yet reviewed Sujita Massey -- her first Soho Crime book comes out soon though, so I will -- and I was briefly stumped by Teresa Dovalpage, a Cuban writer whose first Soho book wasn't crime fiction. But in 2018 the press brings out her first mystery, featuring the characters introduced here, a great chance to taste the work ahead of time.

Don't expect me to say my favorites; there is still time to re-read the collection in the holiday mode, and I will probably change my mind at least twice more. Every one of these stories is worth multiple readings. I might have to give several copies as gifts!

Last in this group is a collection that's not intended to be mystery/crime fiction, but happens to be edited by -- with a story by -- an expert teacher in the field, D. P. Lyle. The books is called IT'S ALL IN THE STORY -- CALIFORNIA and is an "anthology of short fiction" from the Southern California Writers Association. The level of work is uneven, but it's interesting to see the wide range of approaches among this gathering of Golden State scribblers. It's not a pick for crime fiction readers (unless you are a "completist" in terms of Lyle). But if you have a Golden State itch, this will provide a good scratch, with appearances by William Randolph Hearst and by San Francisco's Russian immigrants, as well as mention of San Jan Capistrano. And of course the gold rush!

Wishing you many moments to read in the upcoming months. It will surely add some spice -- and suspense! -- to the season's special treats.

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

Monday, October 09, 2017

A Delightful 1930s Mystery from Cheryl Honigford, HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS

What fun to have a second mystery in the "Viv and Charlie" series from Chicago author Cheryl Honigford! I loved her first, The Darkness Knows (an irresistible radio drama mystery with hints of the old radio series "The Shadow"), and HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS is every bit as delicious -- a quick-paced amateur sleuth tale of the cash-strapped 1930s.

Vivian Witchell, a rising star in radio drama in the Windy City, has her eye on keeping the job she loves, no matter the pressure from home to step back into a more traditional woman's role, or the competition in the broadcasting studio, where flirtation is both a skill and a weapon. But at home, things have become complicated, and a discovery of both a hidden key and a wad of cash, with a threatening note, also threatens to undo the rosy glow Viv holds around her deceased father's life.

Fortunately, she's got a pro on her side: private detective Charlie Haverman. But that connection is also tangled with romance and passion, which Viv actually is supposed to be focusing entirely at her work relationship, where the radio drama says she's madly in love. Yep, it's complicated.

When her best friend Imogene casts doubt on Vivian's agonizing, it's tempting to call off the hunt and go out for a holiday hot chocolate instead.
Vivian frowned. She knew Imogene was right. Nothing she found in that drawer could possibly have any bearing on the present day. Still, something pricked at her conscience. Something about that envelope of money was wrong. The fact that her father had hidden the key to his own desk drawer was wrong.
Even worse, though, are the doubts that Charlie shares about Vivian's dad -- and soon she's in much hotter water, dreading a possible connection to the past crimes of Al Capone himself ... and whoever is running his operations now.

Every page of this madcap mystery has a fresh twist, and the frank urgency of Vivian's passion for Charlie adds a lively spice to the action. I had a ball reading the book -- even though I dread thinking of those Big Holidays cruising toward us already!

Well, if we can make the best of New Year's Eve the way Vivian finally does ... let's jazz it up! (Oh, you won't need to read the two titles in order. Set aside a shelf for the series, though, because I bet it will keep on rolling with great success.)

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

New Texas Ranger Mystery Series from J M Gulvin, THE LONG COUNT

US cover
The name J M Gulvin won't be familiar even to readers of this British/American author's long series of previous books, because it's a new pen name -- earlier titles came out from "Jeff Gulvin" and the pseudonym "Adam Armstrong."

Hard to say whether this newest nom de plume is intended to sound like Texas. In fact, the toughest part about THE LONG COUNT, a debut in a Texas Ranger series, is that almost nothing in the book "sounds like" the Lone Star State. And for a region with such distinctive language, that's quite a drawback in a novel set there.

On the other hand, there's plenty of Southern in the book, where Ranger John Quarrie (careful, don't confuse this with Quarry, a creation of Max Allan Collins) is struggling to keep up with the work load during student protests during the Vietnam War. Quarrie's tangled connection with a recently returned Nam veteran, Isaac Bowen, takes him dashing along back roads and sometimes all the way past the Texas border to Louisiana. What's the story behind Isaac's father's death -- and is it suicide (which John Quarrie doubts) or murder? Where is Isaac's missing brother Ishmael? Why do the members of this devastated family have ties to a high-security asylum for the criminally insane?

It took me a while to get into THE LONG COUNT because of the lack of Texas feel to it. But I finally found Quarrie -- or John Q, as he is also known -- such an interesting detective that I fell into the story after all. Quarrie's friendships and unusual extended family, including his young son, are especially intriguing. So is the rich language with which Gulvin piles details into the scenes:
Quarrie approached the house along the overgrown footpath with a flashlight the chief had retrieved from the truck. The stoop was cut from rough-looking wood and two of the steps were rotten, the edges turned to mush. He picked up a scraping of mud that seemed to have been deposited at an odd angle. Coasting the beam from the flashlight across the grass he saw where it was flattened in places and that was not due to the rain. Moving away from the stoop he looked more deeply and shone the torch on the turned earth under the window.
You can see from that sample that Gulvin's Britishisms haven't been fully pruned out. It makes for some odd descriptions, with a bit of a strange rhythm to the prose. But the plot twists are smart and dark, and the book is still a good read.

Besides, I love getting in on the first book of a series -- it's exciting to wonder how the author will grow with the characters in the titles yet to come!

THE LONG COUNT -- the title refers in one sense to going underwater and holding your breath -- is brought to American readers by Faber and Faber, and comes recommended by the magnificent Ann Cleeves. Keep your expectations modest, and enjoy the ride.

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

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Brief Mention: THE FURY, John Farris, Classic Crime and Horror Fiction Re-Released by Chicago Review Press

Film buffs may be far more familiar than I was with THE FURY, released in the horror genre in 1978 (a Brian De Palma film). The recent release of this book in softcover by the independent Chicago Review Press gives an exciting way to see the original book and how John Farris, known for his contemporary horror, handled the plot some 40 years ago.

Today's fiction has surged past the premise of THE FURY in many ways -- it's not at all surprising to find that a CIA agent (Peter Sandza) needs to seek out his government-kidnapped exceptional son Robin. And the paired plot line with a mega-wealthy family's daughter, Gillian Bellaver, sharing some of Robin's unusual psychic gifts (and perhaps a psychic bond?) is not unusual, either.

But without the frills and imagery of the silver screen, it's fascinating to watch the author lay out these two young lives as the ordinary and familiar unravels. I didn't find it as chilling as the film surely was in 1978. But I couldn't put it down, either. And seeing the book as prelude to today's masters of the paranormal crime mystery (like John Connolly) is irresistible.

For insight into how the horror genre developed and for a fascinating look at the written precursor to the noted film, THE FURY is well worth picking up and ... dare I say, enjoying? (Oh, don't let the rather basic cover deter you. It's irrelevant to the work.)


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

Crime-Solving in the Korean DMZ (and Beyond) for Sueño and Bascom in THE NINE-TAILED FOX, Martin Limón

Soho Crime continues to bring remarkable international crime fiction to American readers -- and one of most enjoyable of the current series is the one from former military pro Martin Limón. Limón writes from his decade spent in Korea, with the complex mixture of love and despair that a friend of this small-but-fierce nation can easily develop. And his investigators from the US Army's military police in the 1970s, sergeants Ernie Bascom and George Sueño, operate from that same complicated standpoint: wanting to make things work out well for the Koreans around them who are so often misunderstood by the American forces, and pressed to a timeline of "solve this and get back to base" -- while also resisting the dangerous partnership with the Korean National Police that they've entered over the past few titles in the series.

There are already a dozen books before this just-released title, THE NINE-TAILED FOX, and I'm such a fan of these well-written crime novels that I suggest reading them all. But you don't need to have followed the series before plunging into this one. For one thing, Limón is a strong author who engages readers in both character and plot twists, without depending on prior knowledge; for another, it appears from the slightly uneven "explaininess" of the first few chapters that someone decided to make sure there were extra paragraphs to bring people into the situation. After all, Army life isn't simple, and neither was the Korean assistance in the 1970s, a presence by American forces that the Asian nation desired in order to hold back the Chinese, but also in some senses an Occupation operating from a narrow set of prejudices and military logic.

This time, George and Ernie -- the only ones on their base who seem able to navigate the streets of Seoul successfully -- are thrust into investigating three missing servicemen, in three different locations. The pressure's nonstop, from their superior officers (solve it, clean it up), from the Korean officer they've nicknamed "Mr. Kill" who's going to take things into his own hands soon, and of course from the sense of obligation these investigators feel when they witness murder and the associated local pressures of organized crime and prostitution.

The title refers to a Korean fairy tale of a sexually devouring woman called "the nine-tailed fox" -- or in Korean, the gumiho, a term that the investigators first hear described by others as a "gummy whore." (Their on-base informant, an eccentric pervert they've nicknamed "Strange," is quickly obsessed with this archetypal figure!) She appears to have lured each of the three missing men in some way, in order to kidnap them. But why? There are no ransom demands, no action that makes sense in American terms. Or Korean!

By the time Sueño and Bascom -- with dangerous assistance from Mr. Kill -- sort out what's really going on, they're in too deep to back out. But also too deep to keep themselves safe.

Let the awkward first few pages slide by, and follow the chase into the complicated crime and highly specific Korean negotiations that follow. This is a great page-turner, and at the same time a classic military-based mystery, packed with action and intrigue.

Oh yes, do get the rest of the series as soon as you can. I've rarely found a series with such diverse plots. And having a small taste of Korean culture in the past, I find the setting and motivations in Limón's books addicting, and the plots highly readable. Thanks to Soho Crime as well as the author, for keeping this one rolling.

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

Long Effects of Evil in BLOCK 46, Johana Gustawsson


US cover
Sometimes the movement of a good (or great) crime novel from Europe to the United States takes a while. Then again, some of them never come across the ocean. Still, the three-year transit for BLOCK 46 from French crime writer Johana Gustawsson was too long a wait for such a blockbuster of a novel.

UK cover
Like the generation-long effects of abuse and murder in the Irish "Troubles" so hauntingly portrayed by Stuart Neville, Gustawsson's terrain of Nazi terror creates people and events steeped in evil. But this author doesn't simplify in any sense -- while the serial killer in BLOCK 46 seems to reenact some trauma of Buchenwald's killings, the novel is told from three voices: his, and those of two women.

Emily Roy, a top-tier Canadian criminal profiler who works for the British police force, demands detailed support services and instant access to crime scenes and information. Considering that she's working on a killer who has already piled up three bodies in two nations when the book begins, she needs every crumb of information and insight possible.

Alexis Castells, a close friend of the first adult that the serial killer tackles, can't walk away from the murder of jewelry designer Linnéa, who at first is the lone victim in Sweden. Haunted by an earlier crime she's been unable to finalize emotionally, Alexis determines to tag along with Emily -- who, surprisingly, allows her into the pursuit process.

The book's three-voice construction is brilliantly balanced by Gustawsson. Her details of torment at Buchenwald -- the "camp" where her own grandfather suffered -- are acute and perceptive, but also rapidly exchanged for the more civilized scenes in London and Sweden as the investigation takes place. As reader, I found myself eager to return to Emily and Alexis and the assorted police officers they're teamed with. And yet after a few pages in their company, I was also ready to look again at the cold, bitter, twisted landscape and events in the concentration camp, wanting to know how (or whether) Erich Ebler, a medical student imprisoned and debased in the camp, was surviving.

BLOCK 46 was a huge hit in Europe; the author's website exposes interviews and background that fascinate almost as much as the book. Like this:
These places define me as a woman and writer: I'm not only Marseillaise and French, but I am also a Londoner and an aspiring Swede! I arrived in London in 2009, after seven years in Paris. At the time, I was a journalist, freelancing for French magazines. I immediately felt at home in this city of various villages steeped in history, great parks and ancient pubs, all mixed with a cosmopolitan culture that inspires you. Hampstead is my favourite part of town. It is truly a haven that feels just like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. As for Sweden, it was my husband who brought the Scandinavian influence to our family. He introduced me to the rough beauty of the west coast, the Nordic folklore and the divine  chokladbollar !
Well done, Orenda Books, in bringing this debut crime novel across "the Pond." I will be watching for the next installment.

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