Saturday, June 17, 2017

Advance Mention of July 4 Release, NO SURRENDER, Patrick Bisher with Jon Land

I'm a fan of Jon Land's quirky crime series featuring Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong. In a startling divergence from his two mystery series, Land's newest book -- on which he is the secondary author -- is nonfiction, an inspirational memoir from Navy SEAL warrior Patrick Bisher.

The full title of the book is NO SURRENDER: FAITH, FAMILY, AND FINDING YOUR WAY. Bisher, who suffered a major bone failure as a 9-year-old child that could have confined him to a wheelchair or crutches for life, instead chose to push past enormous physical pain for years, in an effort to keep up with how he saw his brothers -- one living, one deceased -- and a refusal to give up.

Although his story is framed alongside his changing faith in God, Bisher mostly narrates his choices as reflecting grit, stubbornness, and a willingness to suffer pain as needed to reach his goals. It's not my kind of book in general, but between Bisher's compelling story and the presumed writing support he had from Jon Land, I found the memoir worth reading, looking always for how this astonishing warrior-in-the-making would cope with his next threatened defeat.

If you're looking for a Fourth of July gift to inspire and encourage someone facing a similar set of choices -- including youngsters considering a military career -- consider making this book your patriotic and touching gift to someone this summer. The release date is July 4, from Post Hill Press (already available for pre-ordering online or at your local independent bookstore).

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

Detroit-Area Crime Reporter Julia Gooden in DUPLICITY by Jane Haseldine

DUPLICITY is the second of the Julia Gooden crime novels -- but the first to come my way. Issued as a hardcover by Kensington, it moves author Jane Haseldine onto the "must collect" list. Not only is this gritty and high-tension mystery set in grim and corruptible Detroit, once the nation's "Motor City"; it takes the classic situation of investigative journalist versus crooked justice, and salts it with mob violence and vicious politics.

For Julia Gooden, the job comes first. That makes her a challenging character, when you consider she's also a mom to two small boys -- in fact, almost a single mom, since she's only starting to consider letting her estranged husband back into the family's life.

Her career also pits her directly against her husband David at this moment, as he is the prosecutor taking a mob figure to trial, determined to keep witnesses and testimony secret for as long as possible, to secure the safety of those on the stand. When a rival newspaper picks up details that Julia might have exposed if only she didn't have to be so careful of her husband's position, her own job prospects take a hard blow. But that's nothing compared to the violence and risk ahead, as her efforts to keep her family safe take her behind the crime scenes, into serious conflicts of interest.

Adding yet another layer of suspense and darkness to Julia's life is her past: not just the years when her marriage "worked" but also the childhood crushed by the kidnapping of her brother, who still hasn't been found -- one reason, in fact, that she's kept her "maiden" name despite marrying.

All this comes to a head in a hospital room, as Julia wonders whether David can even hear her trying to encourage him to recover from an act of terror -- and steps into deep trouble through a routine gesture:
She notices a cardboard box containing David's belongings on a stand next to the bed, including his clothing he had carefully selected for big day one of the trial. Julia inspects the items in the box: David's cell phone, wallet, blue suit coat and dress pants, white button-down shirt with the gold stripes she picked for him just hours earlier. ... Julia tucks the box under her arm as Dr. Whitcomb pokes his head inside the door.

"Ms. Gooden, I'm afraid it's time to leave."

Julia leans in close to David and whispers in his ear, "I love you. Fight with all you've got."
What Julia will later find on that significant cell phone shifts the balance in this intense thriller, and will also affect her interactions with a local police detective. Layer after layer, she's got to figure out who around her is trustworthy -- and whose duplicity is going to wound her yet again.

And, oh yes, somehow save her job, if possible.

This is a fast-moving and suspenseful tale, with enjoyable complications and twists throughout. Julia Gooden won't be my favorite character of the month -- I didn't like some of her choices, to the point where I wouldn't actually want her as a friend. But that's OK: I still want to follow her investigations, here and in future books of the series.

I also get the strong impression that Haseldine -- a former crime reporter herself -- is positioned to get steadily stronger in this genre. Worth going along for the ride!

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

New Release, THE ULTIMATUM, Thriller from Karen Robards

There's a time for hot suspense, and sometimes there's a place for romance -- but in THE ULTIMATUM,  the new and exhilarating thriller from Karen Robards, it's suspense and danger that take the hot seat. And that's terrific news, because Bianca St. Ives -- daughter of an outrageous international con man who's taught her the ultimate in survival skills and problem solving -- needs all her wits about her to carry out her own high-stakes tasks.

If you've ever wondered where the equivalent of Jack Reacher was for women, the answer is, in this page-turning global crime novel. Bianca's irresistible, a determined young women making fools out of the unprincipled gangsters she's up against. The first hundred pages of THE ULTIMATUM pits her against a misogynous prince of Bahrain, and she's leading a crew of top-notch thieves to reclaim something the prince shouldn't have. But it looks like the whole night's been a setup, to get to her and her team -- or, most dangerously of all, to her father.

So when the heist goes catastrophic, and she and her least likely associate watch a death trap in operation, Bianca shakes off the horror that's frozen her in place:
"We have to go," she said, and stood up. It took every ounce of strength and determination she possessed. Fire trucks raced up the street, screaming to a stop beside the flaming truck. Firefighters jumped down, ran to connect their hoses to hydrants along the plaza. ...

Doc rose too. "But we can't just --"

"Yes, we can. We have to go," she repeated more strongly and grabbed his arm. "We can't help them. We can stay here and die with them, or we can save ourselves."
Strong, fierce, determined -- these are the key words for Bianca St. Ives. She's also hungry for family and loyal friends, and when she finds them under threat, her own actions have one route only: Save them, no matter the challenge.

Whether she's negotiating terms on a boat at sea or struggling for footing on a snow-covered mountain, her extreme fitness skills and her desire to follow the quest her dad instilled in her drive her into high action and hair-raising hunts -- where she is sometimes the hunter but just as often, the prey.

Robards salts the adventure with a deft touch of sexual tension, since one of Bianca's opponents has an odd knack of taking her breath away. But it doesn't stop Bianca, or deter her. Not at all.

I kicked myself as I reached the final chapter, having only just realized what the book's title suggested; some readers will figure that part out much sooner than I did. More importantly, I hated to turn the final pages. Good thing this is the start of a series, even if the name "The Guardian Series" sound more like sci fi than international thriller. Hmm. When you've devoured your copy (turn off all distractions), let me know what you think. No spoilers, though!

Robards, by the way, is the author of more than 50 novels -- if, like me, you haven't sampled her work before, that may be because a her early work was romantic suspense, then contemporary suspense. I'm hoping she'll stay with intense thriller as her long-time genre, now that she's broken into it so boldly and marvelously. Quick comparisons: Less emotionally torn than Taylor Stevens's Monroe, not as wounded at Carol O'Connell's Kathy, but a bit more complex (and hence engaging) than Jack Reacher. Grab a copy.

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

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Summer Mystery Delight, DEATH ON NANTUCKET, Francine Mathews

Summer reading season is fully here, and with it, a crop of new mysteries to enjoy. I'm especially glad that DEATH ON NANTUCKET came my way. This fifth in the Merry Folger Mystery series from Francine Mathews is a smoothly written, tightly plotted detective novel based on one of the classic mystery tropes: the death of a wealthy head of the family, with a circle of possible beneficiaries in the house.

Investigating for the Nantucket police force is Detective Meredith Folger, who needs to have her A game lined up: Not only is Spencer Murphy a famous and powerful former war correspondent with a fortune amassed from his books -- but the death of his (unknown to many) adopted daughter as the July 4th weekend opens puts pressure on Merry to quickly get the facts, make a determination, charge someone or not, and have it all wrapped up politely before the weekend ends. At least, that's what her highly critical boss expects from her.

Merry's own past -- lightly and deftly sketched in by Mathews -- includes having to fight for her own upcoming wedding ceremony to be on her terms, not those of her powerful mother-in-law to be. The challenges of both work and home help her to tune in quickly to the Murphy family undercurrents. Loyalties cut both ways, Spencer Murphy is losing his own truths to dementia, and the family's youngest member on scene, young college grad Laney Murphy, seems the only person willing to be fully honest as Merry sorts through motive, means, and abundant opportunity.

This is a great traditional mystery, one of the most satisfying I've read this season. I recommend it highly, and will scramble to line up the earlier titles for my own summer reading pleasure: Death in the Off-Season, Death in Rough Water, Death in a Mood Indigo, Death in a Cold Hard Light.

Although the series is new to me, I'm already a fan of what Francine Mathews writes under her other nom de plume, Stephanie Barron. The author lives in Denver, CO, but clearly knows Nantucket well -- and is a former CIA intelligence analyst.

Newly released today, from Soho Crime. And I have a list of people for whom to buy copies already!

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


Cara Black/Aimée Leduc Paris Mystery 17, MURDER IN SAINT-GERMAIN

Good news for Cara Black mystery fans -- number 17 in the very entertaining Aimée Leduc series is released today. And MURDER IN SAINT-GERMAIN takes the Parisian detective in a fresh new direction: sorting out an espionage-related set of crimes that cross her path.

That's not simple for the new and mostly single mom who runs a cybersecurity firm, where ideally she could stay at a desk like her detection partners, checking videotape and files. But even that turns active in this mystery, with a client demanding in-person service that sends Leduc scrambling for changes of couture -- and there's nothing like scrambling across rooftops encrusted with pigeon waste, to make a gal pull off her designer footwear and tackle the task barefoot after all.

Aimée Leduc is also scrambling for child care, as her darling baby, newly mobile, needs careful care, but the usual caregivers aren't available. When Melac, the baby's hunky but disloyal dad, steps up to cover the gap, a mysterious woman that Melac introduces as his mother (who knew?!) also enters.

Even while sorting out Bosnians, Serbians, and war criminals, Leduc's own confused past keeps claiming her attention. Is her godfather, Morbier, dying in a hospital as a result of her own actions? Has she been unfair? Do the Paris police care whether she was right or wrong, or will they simply all make her life harder as punishment for her injuring their hero, Morbier?

This one's a lively page turner, and even comes with a map to help put the detection and suspense into geographical perspective. Series fans will find it a "must"; if you're new to the series, it still reads well, but you may want to skip back a couple of titles to get background on the sometimes chaotic issues and relationships! Otherwise the sometimes choppy chapters can be a bit distracting.

As I write this, Paris is in the breaking news for an attack on a police officer at the cathedral of Notre Dame; better to have the crimes in the fiction instead. Add this one to the summer reading stack for light fun.

Checklist of titles, newest last, thanks to the Cara Black website:

Murder in the Marais (1999)
Murder in Belleville (2000)
Murder in the Sentier (2003)
Murder in the Bastille (2004) Murder in Clichy (2005)
Murder in Montmartre (2006) Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis (2007) Murder in the Rue de Paradis (2008) Murder in the Latin Quarter (2009) Murder in the Palais Royale (2010) Murder in Passy (2011)

Murder at the Lanterne Rouge (2012) Murder Below Montparnasse (2013) Murder In Pigalle (2014)
Murder on the Champ de Mars (2015) Murder on the Quai (2016)

Murder in Saint-Germain (2017)
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Thursday, June 01, 2017

When Computer Crashes Are Criminal -- BLACKOUT from Marc Elsberg

Part of the fun of global culture is catching up with a book that's already been a bestseller "someplace else." Marc Elsberg's thriller BLACKOUT, released in hardcover in the US today, took Europe by storm in 2012. Fun to have this all-too-believable page-turner come across the ocean!

Elsberg lives in Vienna, Austria, so BLACKOUT is a translated crime novel -- but Marshall Yarbrough's skills make the change of language invisible. The book's premise is that the interlinked power grids across Europe could be triggered to fail, through relatively small and workable changes in the software that runs the generating stations, from hydro to nuclear. Spinning the thriller into deeper intrigue is the notion that today's computer hackers could make those changes. And then, bang, we're into food shortages, hospital issues, transport failure, lack of fuel, and soon, political unrest.

It's hard to avoid spoilers on this one. So I'll just add that the book's written in very short segments, alternating points of view every couple of pages, or sooner (if that makes you crazy, don't open this one). The characters are clever but not deep; it's the plot and the relentless action that make this a powerful and yes, anxiety-arousing (!) read. It's not going to bind you to the protagonist the way a Lee Child crime novel will, but it moves as quickly (or more so), and I do believe the author's claim that it provoked a lot of security changes in the power industries!

Even though I'm keeping this short, I enjoyed every minute of BLACKOUT and am going to get multiple copies, for all the friends and family members who won't be able to put it down. Hope you can grab a copy ASAP. Move it to the top of the summer stack -- so you'll be prepare!

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

Brief Mention, Medieval Mystery by Oliver Pötzsch, THE PLAY OF DEATH

Three reasons to read number six in Oliver Pötzsch's "Hangman's Daughter" series, THE PLAY OF DEATH:
1. You collect the reading experience of mysteries set in Bavaria.
2. You like fiction set in the 1600s.
3. You're planning to see the Bread & Puppet Theater in action in Vermont (or treasure having done so in the past, especially in the 1970s and 1980s).
At the heart of this somewhat awkwardly translated mystery (reminds me of the translation of P.J. Brackston's books, also set in Bavaria) is the annual passion play in Oberammergau -- which in many ways is a precursor to the grand spectacles that Bread & Puppet created. The second strand is what life is like in a caste-conscious society when you're part of a hangman's family.

And the third, of course, is a murder and finding the dangerous criminal responsible.

I'm not going to cover this one in depth -- seems to me if you have one of those reasons, you'll pick up the book, and otherwise, skip it -- but here's the formal description from the Munich-born author's website:
It is 1670 and Simon Fronwieser is in the town of Oberammergau to bring his seven-year-old son to boarding school. As he bids his boy a tearful farewell, news comes of a shocking murder: the man who was to play the part of Christ in the town’s Passion play has been found dead, nailed to the set’s cross. As there is no doctor in town, Simon is brought in to examine the body. The opportunities to spend more time with his son and to investigate the murder quickly convince him to stay.

Soon he is joined by his father-in-law, Jakob Kuisl, the Schongau hangman, and the two begin piecing together the puzzle of the actor’s death. Was he murdered by a jealous rival? Are the recently arrived and unpopular immigrant workers somehow involved? Or is it a punishment from God for the villagers’ arrogance in trying to schedule the play four years earlier than prescribed by ancient custom? Once again it looks like it is up to the Kuisls to unravel the mystery and bring a town’s dark secrets to light.
Brought to the US by Mariner, a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt press. (A quick note: Yes, I realize that strictly speaking the 1600s are beyond the medieval period. But trust me, not in this landscape.)

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

More Summer Reading, British "Traditional" Mystery with Archaeology, THE CHALK PIT, Elly Griffiths

British author Elly Griffiths writes two distinctive mystery series, one set "today" in and around Norwich, England, rich with archaeology and very British themes, and the other involving stage magic and illusion plus murder, circa 1950. I'm a fan of both.

Just released this week in the US is the newest in her Ruth Galloway mystery series, featuring a forensic archaeologist who's also a single parent in a very complicated network of university politics, local police, and the remnants of England's past -- which in Ruth's case includes a significant friendship with a modern-day Druid. No fancy paranormal side effects in here, unless you count the occasional strong intuition that Ruth and her friends may experience. Instead, THE CHALK PIT provides the perfect summer read: a strong traditional mystery with powerful motives (money and power!), and heart-stirring secondary plotting among the homeless in Norwich.

This time Ruth's investigating some human bones that turned up in an old tunnel, part of an excavation for a future restaurant-and-event locale, where the money at stake pushed the agenda. Hurry up and declare the bones insignificant remains of some medieval resident (definitely not royal) and get them out of the way. Ruth's willing ... but, as she settles to discussing them with DCI Nelson, head of the Norwich police team and a mostly former flame of Ruth's, her doubts take shape:
"Anyway, it's likely that the bones are medieval or even older. There's no flesh on them and they look very clean. It's just ..."

"What is it, Ruth? I know there's something you're not telling me."

"It might be nothing. But one of the long bones was broken in the middle and there were cut marks on it. And the bones were so clean, almost shiny. It reminded me of something that I've read about. Pot polish."

"Pot polish? Sounds like something my granny would do."

"I doubt it. It's when bones are boiled soon after death. The polish comes from the contact with a roughly made cooking vessel."

"Jesus wept." Nelson chokes on his last crumb of cake. "Are you saying these bones were in a cooking pot?"
While Ruth keeps that aspect as quiet as possible, she's getting crowded by fellow academics who want to push into the underground labyrinth with her, and some have motives that worry her. Meanwhile, Nelson's team, especially DS Judy Johnson, has another reason for interest in those old tunnels that were once part of the region's chalk-mining industry: Could homeless people in the area become crime victims of someone living "underground" and kidnapping them, or worse?

Griffiths keeps the twists spinning, enlivened by Ruth Galloway's confused "love life" that tugs her in as many directions as her work does. Lively storytelling, quick surprises, and a lot at stake make the book a very good vacation from ordinary daily life -- and from the lawnmower and garden!

This is the ninth in the series, and it lacks the tang of some of the earlier titles when Ruth's Druid friend Cathbad saw more action. There's no need to read the others first -- Griffiths is a pro in terms of setting the scene in a sequel by now -- but for the best enjoyment, I'd recommend splurging for the summer reading pile and picking up the earlier titles in softcover (The Crossing Places, The Janus Stone, The House at Sea's End, A Room Full of Bones, A Dying Fall, The Outcast Dead, The Ghost Fields, The Woman in Blue). FYI, the earlier titles veer a bit more toward the dark and dangerous side than THE CHALK PIT does. (It's all about taste, isn't it?)

Great that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has brought this series across the Atlantic.

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

Summer Reading Starts Today: Memorial Day 2017, with CALLED TO JUSTICE, Edith Maxwell

The parade. The picnic. In New England, the visit to the cemetery to trim around the family plot and set some flowers or flowering plants by the resting places of family members -- and perhaps a flag or two, at the same time.

Or do you spend your Memorial Day struggling to catch up with the suddenly green grass, the garden plots, the gas grill that needs assembling before supper?

Good news: In addition to all of that, Memorial Day is the start of the summer reading season. And I have some great candidates for the stack.

CALLED TO JUSTICE is the second in Edith Maxwell's Quaker Midwife mystery series. So far, the books take place in Amesbury, Massachusetts, about 20 years after the Civil War. The town's status as a carriage center involves multiple mills making all the parts -- wood, leather, and more -- for horse-drawn carriages of varying levels of elegance. Thriving, prospering, the town therefore holds a significant number of people ... and various houses of worship, including a Friends (Quaker) Meetinghouse attended by the great Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier. To Rose Carroll, a skilled but definitely blue-collar midwife in the town (and also a Quaker, or "Friend"), Whittier is a mentor for ethical decisions. And her calling, to assist women in the most dangerous (and joyous!) passage most of them will endure, takes her often to visit this semi-reclusive leader in her neighborhood.

As the book opens, Rose's feet ache from standing for the Independence Day speeches at the town center, including a volunteer reading aloud one of Whittier's poems written for a nearby statue of a signed of the Declaration of Independence, and saying:
And thou, O Land he loved, rejoice
That in the countless years to come,
Whenever Freedom needs a voice,
These sculptured lips shall not be dumb!
Rose herself takes on the responsibility to speak for freedom and justice a few hours later, when attending Fourth of July fireworks with her beau, a doctor -- they are called to try to save a gunshot victim, a 17-year-old girl, and then to speak up for one of the area's few African American residents, a former slave now a business owner, who is quickly accused of having something to do with the shooting.

The girl can't be saved -- and Rose is further burdened with the knowledge that this teenage mill worker was pregnant, perhaps as a result of rape. Is the girl's condition connected with her death? Was the gunshot an accident, or was it murder?

Maxwell's lively mystery explores Rose's sense of what's right and just in her community and her spiritual home. Readers who read the first book (Delivering the Truth) will enjoy discovering that Rose's romantic life blossoms amid the investigation and attending childbirths, whether simple or risky. But Maxwell provides plenty of grounding to hold those who missed the first book (you may want to pick it up later). She also smoothly introduces Quaker customs, from the mostly silent meetings, to how decisions are made in the group, to private decision making and prayer -- as well as how a marriage takes place, something that may come to fruition later in the series!

Most importantly for mystery readers, the clues, twists, red herrings, and solutions in this historical crime novel are neatly assembled and intriguing. And, in the spirit of a season of patriotism that thrives during Memorial Day and again at Independence Day, midwife Rose Carroll takes her stand here for diverse types of justice: racial, gendered, and the human rights of the poor and less powerful.

A good read, and a delightful reward for a summer interlude, whether on a rainy afternoon or a sunny beach. Let me know your guesses for where Maxwell will take this series (from Midnight Ink) in the future -- I can hardly wait to discover more!

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

British Mystery to Grab Right Away, ALL OF A WINTER'S NIGHT, Phil Rickman

If you already know the Merrily Watkins mysteries and enjoy them, don't hesitate -- go out and get a copy of ALL OF A WINTER'S NIGHT right away. And clear your schedule for page-turning reading from Wales-connected author Phil Rickman.

If, like me, you're new to this British series, let me fill you in. Merrily Watkins is the vicar of a community church in a mostly rural section of England, Hereford, on the border of Wales. She's also what in the States we would call an "exorcist" -- but in a very quiet way, with a group of others religious leaders who've found themselves called to relieve the troubles of those who experience paranormal events. They call their field of effort "deliverance" and it has a lot to do with letting people get things of their chests, and then following up with prayer and related church services.

But Merrily's position is under attack from the new bishop and it's not clear how far he'll go to restrict her out-of-pulpit activities. She's also concerned about her daughter Jane, taking a gap year before university and somehow unmoored from expectations.

Both Jane and Merrily find support from a neighboring musician -- who in turn collaborates with local Detective Inspector Frannie Bliss as a shooting and a vehicular death turn out to reveal the powerful strands of organized crime in the region, with international ties and a lot of money.

When the two plot lines cross, the action and risks multiply exponentially. So do the ties to a much earlier form of spirituality in the region, expressed in part through the concept and character of the ancient "Green Man," but also in the rituals of a very private, very disturbing group of folk dancers recreating "Border morris" dances with strange undertones.

I saw parallels in many of the characters to the landowners, farmers, and ambitious developers of my own northern Vermont region. And if we don't yet have a Merrily Watkins among us, I'm willing to believe there's an opening for her American counterpart (in fact, John Connolly's Maine paranormal series evokes the same sense of timeless power and faith).

Don't let the "haunting" aspect of ALL OF A WINTER'S NIGHT keep you away from this crime novel -- because it is in the long run all about human greed and passion, and following the benefits of the crime. But getting to the solution takes a long, lovely time, nearly 500 pages in which each chapter provides a powerful impulse forward, and the Big Questions get intelligent and passionate attention.

Here's the author's own take on what Merrily is up to:
It's a real job; there's at least one in every diocese in the UK. They work with psychiatrists, social workers ... and also the police. Inevitably, in this series, this is the aspect of the job that predominates.

And their own beliefs are often tested. There are few certainties. The borderline between psychology and the unexplained is often laid out in barbed wire.
A keeper. And I'm going to have to find the preceding 13 Merrily Watkins mysteries, ASAP. 

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

Brief Mention, CRUEL IS THE NIGHT, Karo Hämäläinen

Did you enjoy the plot, characters, twists, and finale of Gone Girl? If so, race to your favorite book-buying route and get a copy of the CRUEL IS THE NIGHT. It's translated from the Finnish, and struck me as closer to Chicago crime than to the usual form of Scandinavian noir that I've read lately ... but the moment I compared it in to Gillian Flynn's runaway success, I knew why this new book from Soho Crime seemed hauntingly familiar in a sort of parallel-universe way. Here's the publisher's synopsis:
Prizewinning Finnish author Karo Hämäläinen’s English-language debut is a literary homage to Agatha Christie and a black comedy locked-room mystery about murder, mayhem, and morality in our cynical modern world.
Well, yes, now that you mention it, "black comedy" and "cynical modern world" effectively tag CRUEL IS THE NIGHT as noir. It's also highly entertaining, as the author's multiple points of view reveal the frictions, resentments, and "frissons" of attraction and repulsion among four people -- two couples reconnecting after years of estrangement, ostensibly to celebrate one couple's striking success.

Pick this one up for the challenge of a puzzle mystery. It's quite an effort to work out the ending before the author takes you there! Hats off to translator Owen Witesman, who propels plenty of page-turning dialogue and action onto the English-language pages.

From Soho Crime, where international crime fiction thrives.

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

Henry Chang's "Chinatown Trilogy" Concludes with Book 5, LUCKY

International mysteries pull me into new places, with intriguing histories and cultures, illuminated through the characters and their choices. I grew up reading "British" mysteries -- then was astonished when the French, German, and Spanish ones came my way. What a delight!

And then Soho Crime -- an imprint of Soho Press -- came into my bookshelves, and I delved into the lives and perils of characters in Scandianvia, Africa, Asia ...

But one of Soho Crime's intriguing "international crime" series turns out to be set almost entirely in New York City, in and around Chinatown, through the eyes of police detective Jack Yu. Because of the detailed cityscapes that author Henry Chang provides for Yu's investigations, I've come to see those red-bannered shops and streets full of Asian voices entirely differently -- perhaps most especially as far more diverse than just a crowd from one modern nation. Mandarin and Cantonese languages, Toishanese dialect, centuries-long family bonds and loyalties and conflicts, traditions and obligations that require fresh understanding and sometimes are far beyond everyday American experience -- all this is enfolded in Chang's mystery series.

With the publication of LUCKY this spring, the Jack Yu series appears to be wrapping up (although I never assume a detective's pages are done for good ...). It's been a series well worth anticipating, and in this fifth book (two more than the envisioned "Chinatown Trilogy" of the early ones), some important threads from the earlier books are pulled tight. The most important is that of Jack Yu's childhood friend and then criminal connection, "Lucky" Louie, who's been lying in a hospital apparently comatose, without a chance of recovery, through much of the series.

LUCKY opens with a few chapters from Jack's point of view, as he visits his father's grave in a regional cemetery, to observe the customs of Ch'ing Ming, a time of year when it's important to feed the connection to deceased family members. Of course that puts Jack in a reflective mood, but he doesn't have long to enjoy it, as his schedule pulls him into a mandated psych appointment, then a quick undercover visit to his sweetheart (big reasons why it can't be public). Meanwhile, surprising changes are happening in Lucky Louie's hospital room.

This crime novel swiftly transforms into a heist thriller, as a crime spree unfolds that involves Jack Yu on levels he'll never be able to admit to his superiors. Here's the author commenting on the tight, intense pace of LUCKY in an interview at the Mystery People blog:
"The tightness of the pace was an adjustment to the storytelling style. Lucky‘s written more like a thriller than a mystery, where you can’t wait to see what Lucky does next. Unlike Jack’s usual investigative mysteries, which can meander culturally as the clues arise, Lucky is an escalating conflict-driven crime world drive-by. Lucky’s actions drive the narrative."
It's easy to slip into spoilers, so I won't say more -- except that this is a really good read, worth adding to either the summer reading stack or this weekend's diversions. No problem stepping into this fifth and final book of the series without reading the other four, but it's definitely a richer work if you've followed Jack Yu's career and struggles with his mixed identities.

Wonder what Henry Chang is writing next? Because I'm sure he is. It's been too much fun! By the way, his author webpage is pretty much bare bones and often out of date -- for insight into Chang and his books and the causes he's championing, "Friend" him on Facebook. Worth the effort!

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

Diversion: Poetry to Stretch the Mind, with a Smile ... Adrienne Raphel, WHAT WAS IT FOR

One of the delights of living in a rural place for a long, long time is seeing people make themselves into their dreams. When Adrienne Raphel left St. Johnsbury, Vermont, for all kinds of education in the big, mostly urban world out there, I wondered which of her dreams she would pick for the long haul. "We" all knew she'd be writing fine material -- but in what genre?

The question's now happily answered, as Raphel's first published book is a collection of poems, WHAT WAS IT FOR, via Rescue Press and the Black Box Poetry Prize.

The cover art, suggestive of an old-fashioned book of natural science, speaks to the sense in her poems that life-as-we-know-it has long-lasting themes and puzzles. But in her voice, these take fresh new form. I particularly enjoyed a surprising take on "vacationing" in the poem "Agar Agar," where the second stanza offers, "The sky is pink gelatin / Welcome to Vacation Island / the doorbell rings and I go / Close and leave my body behind." By the end of the poem, the hot sunshine's effect on that gelatin -- oh yes, I recall gelled "agar agar" in a Petri dish, ready to be inoculated with germplasm of life -- has transformed it:
I've never been so translucent never so runny
The white-hot sand makes my feet pinker
What part of me will I tattoo
I can go so far and farther
Many of the poems hint at a story line, then back away from it, leaving the conclusion and its emotional freight wide open. Questions initiate inquiry, like "But What Will We Do," which begins by asking"But what will we do when the rain doesn't come" -- a poem that entwines the I, we, and you of the moment into longer term questions.

It's a joy to have a copy of the book (a big thank-you to Raphel and her parents for the gift!) because I can return to it day after day and discover that other surprise of strong poems -- that in each day there's a different poem that seems to speak most directly. Today I listen particularly to the hints in "On Monday the Moon Sank Into the Sea," which includes "quixotic geese" and "slack-jaw old clams" as well as a "phantom leg left at a ball." It's playtime on Raphel's pages, and I'm happy to be invited.

Available from Rescue Press online, and also from the usual online sources -- and of course by order at independent booksellers. Tell them to get it into their shelf list, in case you hunger to go pick up another copy for a good friend.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Pre-World War I Mystery, Spunky Heroine: MURDER BETWEEN THE LINES, Radha Vatsal

New this month is the second in Radha Vatsal's Kitty Weeks mystery series, MURDER BETWEEN THE LINES, a lively traditional mystery with an embraceable sleuth and much insight into U.S. politics just before World War I.

Kitty Weeks is a "ladies' page" reporter in Manhattan and the year 1915 is coming rapidly to a close. America hasn't yet entered the war in Europe, although mistrust for Germans runs rampant. Kitty's own newspaper, the New York Sentinel, has a German employee working in the morgue -- the research room where earlier issues of the paper are kept -- and Kitty's friendly with Mr. Musser, thanks to her European education and language skills. And that's a good thing, because even as the book opens, she's in over her head and it's going to take some deep information to put things into perspective.

Most endearing about Kitty is her desire to become a "real" reporter like the men who cover politics and other news stories, but in her time, that's not looking likely. Still, her supervisor, Miss Busby, is attempting to at least keep up with the times, by allowing Kitty to cover a drama staged by some suffragettes, and to examine the women's side of a visit by President Wilson to the city.

What Miss Busby doesn't realize is that Kitty is using even these daring adventures as cover for trying to solve the death of a schoolgirl who may have been inventing better batteries for wartime submarines. But that, of course, is totally not her beat!

The pre-World War I years are deftly handled in Ratsal's lively series, viewed by Kitty -- an upper class young lady causing her father some potential embarrassment by daring to take even a half-time job -- in the manner of a city woman with a busy social life. That differentiates the series strongly from police procedurals and very dark crime series that are now exploring World War I (say, works by Charles Todd or David Downing). MURDER BETWEEN THE LINES is a quick and relaxing read, and there's just a dash of flirtation inserted, no distraction into the perils of romance.

Most of all, it's intriguing to follow Kitty's thinking as she questions the words of even her own boss, who predicts that the Kaiser may bring Germany's rule to America:
"Do you really believe that, Miss Busby?" Kitty had heard reports that prominent citizens -- even Mr. Edison -- were calling for preparedness out of fear that the Germans might launch amphibious attacks on America's unprotected eastern seaboard. Mr. Weeks [Kitty's politically mysterious father] has said that such a scenario seemed highly unlikely; Germany had its hands full battling its immediate foes. It could hardly spare men and resources to wage war in New Jersey.
But as 1916 opens, unlike the young women in much of her circle, Kitty's scenting war's dreadful aroma in the winds of change. It will affect how she pursues the probable murderer of that clever schoolgirl -- and why.

No need to read the preceding book, A Front Page Affair, before this one -- but it will be fun to start filling a shelf with Vatsal's mysteries, for  enjoyable reading on rainy summer afternoons ahead. Both titles are paperback originals from Sourcebooks.

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