Monday, March 23, 2015

Romp Among the Comic Strips, 1953: Max Allan Collins, STRIP FOR MURDER

Dover Publications just brought out a reprint in Mystery Classic form of a 2008 Max Allan Collins book, STRIP FOR MURDER -- and it's a light-hearted and entertaining mystery that brings back the '50s, celebrates the old Broadway's glory and adventures, and pays homage to two of the great comic strips of all time, L'il Abner and Joe Palooka. Fans of the strips will also recognize their feuding authors, Al Capp and Ham Fisher, lightly re-arranged and fictionalized into Hal Rapp and Sam Fizer.

But that's not where this (enjoyable!) story starts. Open instead with Jack Starr, a private investigator doing desk duty for his glamorous stepmother, Maggie Starr (once a striptease artist, now owner of her late husband's newspaper syndicate). Maggie's acting in a Broadway version of one of the comic strips, and Jack's supposed to keep her desk clean but make no big decisions.

Of course, that was before both Jack and Maggie saw the dead body downstairs from where the rest of the show cast was partying. Enemies of the corpse when he was alive? Lots of them ... and at least one is ready to bribe Jack in the most intimate of ways.

I'm delighted that Dover's brought back this deliciously entertaining novel from a master of the field -- Max Allan Collins writes nostalgia, humor, and wordplay with flair (yes, he has another side to his craft, political suspense, but we'll go there some other time). The cover is a gem, and the chapters include opening frames of comic art, as well as closing gestures. This one's purely a fun adventure, where even the crime is almost an illusion, and handsome Jack Starr is sure to solve it.

Looking for extra enjoyment? Visit the author's blog, here -- and have fun.

Policing With "The Troubles": Adrian McKinty's 4th in Series, GUN STREET GIRL

It's Belfast, Ireland, in 1985 -- and any de facto truce between the religious parties on hand is about to blow up. Meanwhile, Inspector Sean Duffy hasn't had enough sleep to investigate a crime scene, but there's little choice when his new young boss calls him to sort out a violent scene at the local upscale brothel. McArthur's eager for Duffy's help resolving a scene that involves a public relations catastrophe. Within a few more paragraphs, we know a lot more about Duffy himself, as he interviews the "working girl" facing him:
"All right. What happened, love?" I asked her.

"The gentleman and I were about to get down to business. And he said I should have some ... rocket fuel, he called it. I said no. He said come on and try it, it would make us go all night. I said no. He gets all eggy and starts screaming and yelling and I says, right, I'm calling security. He goes bonkers and tries to bloody choke me and I pick up the lampshade and clock him with it."

"Good for you," I replied.

"And I immediately called Carrickfergus RUC. I'll have no nonsense like this in my establishment," the woman in the red wig said. Obviously the lady of the house. ...

"Where is this rocket fuel?" I asked.

Chief Inspector McArthur handed me a large bag of white powder. Enough to power an army. I tasted it. High-quality coke cut with nothing. Probably pharma cocaine manufactured in Germany, worth a bloody fortune. I sealed up the bag and put it in my jacket pocket.

"Have you weighed the cocaine?" I asked the Chief Inspector.


Excellent. "I'll do it at the station and enter it into evidence."
Clever Inspector Duffy, right? But the real problem in the scene is the identity of the brothel customer, which the Chief Inspector already knows -- so after a bit more clarification, Duffy arranges for the players to pressure each other into a solution, just the way he's used to doing in his own neighborhood, where he's the lone Catholic on a block of Protestant roughnecks. And for that matter, at the station, where again he's the only Catholic in a team that's in danger daily.

Duffy's quick wit and smart actions serve him well, but in the next case about to drop on his shoulders, a double murder followed by a pair of apparent suicides, it's the other part of his nature that's going to hang him up: always a significant detail just out of reach. And although he has a steady habit of checking under his car for bombs each time he returns to it, there are other dangers he isn't noticing in time to stop the damage.

Like McKinty's earlier three books in the Detective Sean Duffy series (one of them reviewed here), the plot's tight in GUN STREET GIRL, the action fast, and Duffy -- despite his self-medicating lifestyle -- is an achingly likeable cop who's been pushed out of any chance of promotion. That is, until an agent from MI5 steps back into his life, in the most confusing of ways.

Count on dark situations, crimes stacking up, not all that much direct gore actually but a lot of emotional pain, and a poignant share of Duffy's enduring confusion about the women who entrap him. Add a very human version of the Irish protests and violence of that year, with the flavor of the month being loss ... and grief ... and soon Duffy's lifestyle is making way too much sense.

I was sorry the book ended. I could have gone on for a lot longer, looking over this detective's shoulder and noting the way his heart, like the heart of Ireland, was breaking over and over.

Highly recommended. And very, very satisfying.
UK cover.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

From Espionage to Literature (or Vice Versa): Olen Steinhauer, ALL THE OLD KNIVES

Olen Steinhauer's espionage books have made him one of my favorite writers, as his "Tourist" series forges a significant exploration of what it is to feel deeply human emotions (i.e., not be a sociopath) while tackling a job that requires lies, performance, and edgy loyalties. I recommend his books to all who've enjoyed books by John Le Carré, Alan Furst, Charles Cumming, Charles McCarry, and more.

The newest Steinhauer is more of a novella, and closer to Graham Greene than to these others. And the author provides warning of this direction in his front-of-the-book acknowledgments, which explain its genesis: The author watched a gripping dramatization of a Christopher Reid poem turned play (see the poem here:, about two once-were-lovers meeting for lunch, carrying with them their pasts and the division that has made them "old flames." Steinhauer then challenged himself to "write an espionage tale that took place entirely around a restaurant table."

The result does diverge from the tabletop a bit -- to the height of Henry and Celia's romance when they both worked for the CIA in Vienna, Austria, and the dramatic hostage event that each relives daily (or at least in dreams, nightmares). But the heart of ALL THE OLD KNIVES is this: They are about to meet, after five years of not seeing each other, and their conversation is to take place at a California seaside restaurant. (I'm not sure whether there's a traditional expression about old knives for the title -- I don't know one and didn't find one -- but the New York Times review of the book refers to Celia sticking verbal "needles" into Henry, and surely there's a sense of a thousand cuts here.)  Each agent arrives on scene with a different version of that hostage event in mind, and with different motives and deceptions.

If you're looking for the usual espionage plot (secrets hunted, secrets revealed, lives at stake, dark-and-stormy-night chases, some success and some bitterness), pass over this one and go back to the series. But to probe the agony and costs of being a field agent and government operative, as well as the inhumanity of government manipulations, ALL THE OLD KNIVES can be your book of the week -- or year.

At the heart of the conflict: Celia fails to grasp Henry's depths as an agent runner. And Henry never understood Celia-the-person or the relationship they almost carried forward. Layers of revelation peel away with each turn of the pages. John Le Carré has shown us how, as individuals, we are chewed up by international power struggles and forced to confront their inherent corruption while we struggle for integrity. Olen Steinhauer shows instead how the global can be decomposed, such that even the "big events" turn out to be formed by individuals and their passions, their attempts to love, and their points of fracture.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

THE CONNICLE CURSE, Gregory Harris (Colin Pendragon Mystery #3)

When a "noted detective" in a Victorian setting arrives with a sidekick who is male and admiring, it's easy to assume a Sherlock Holmes and Watson pastiche is underway. Whether that's what Gregory Harris intended with The Arnafour Affair and The Bellingham Bloodbath, I'll have to leave up to him -- but the third in the series, THE CONNICLE CURSE, is much too enjoyable and unusual to be pigeonholed so simply.

Athletic and determined Colin Pendragon and his more fragile partner, Ethan Pruitt, have made the English news with their crime-solving, so that Annabelle Connicle swiftly hires their services to solve the presumed murder of her missing husband. Colin's connections through his politically powerful father -- who doesn't appear in this book but whose effect is impressive -- enable him to challenge a handful of sneering Scotland Yard officers to investigate the case. And soon a body is indeed identified as Mr. Connicle's, and there are more to follow.

But Scotland Yard may have been a bit hasty, and although Colin points out the mistakes that the "professionals" and their coroner keep accumulating, Sergeant Evans and Inspector Varcoe aren't happy to accept corrections. What a pity ... because the case keeps getting more tangled, as the Yard men continue to misinterpret and to accept "common knowledge," quickly blaming the crimes on the strangers in the scene: an African couple hired by the Connicles and fully scorned by the wealthy and rather immoral neighbors on scene.

The plot thickens, and incorporating a street youngster willing to follow villains for a living adds a dash of diversity and delight to the investigations -- in fact, since Colin and Ethan are suddenly involved in two cases at once, it's handy to have a helper who doesn't mind dirty work or evading the law, as long as he gets paid for information achieved. "Our Paul is turning out to be quite an entrepreneur," Colin Pendragon gloats cheerfully. But Ethan, our narrator, is not sure that's a good thing. He's identified far more closely with the orphan, and the shadows of his own past keep getting called up, in spite of Pendragon's efforts to protect him.

And here is where this enjoyable traditional mystery (follow the money and cherchez la femme) crosses into fresh terrain: Colin once rescued Ethan from dire straits, involving mental illness, drugs, and more. And the two are, in the most tender and domestic way, lovers as well as crime-solving partners, unsuccessfully trying to avoid having their relationship noticed by the Yard's tough men. Harris spins the story deftly around this unusual focal point, and when it's time to resolve the tragedies that Mrs. Connicle is enduring, Colin's persistence on the case is strongly influenced by the pain he's seen Ethan face.

I enjoyed THE CONNICLE CURSE very much -- take two bundles of Agatha Christie and update with a shake of very British humor and a sauce of affection, and you've got the feel of it quite well. Moreover, I was delighted to find in the final chapter that there's another Colin Pendragon investigation in the wings via Kensington Books: The Dalwich Desecration. Shelve these with mysteries that are friendly, warm, and cleverly twisted in plot, while avoiding gore or dramatic abuse -- in other words, put them on the "read it now and read it again later to relax" shelf. That's what I'll do with mine.

Monday, March 09, 2015

THE HOUSE OF WOLFE, James Carlos Blake (March 3 Pub Date)

There is a special shiver of delight and suspense when the protagonists of a crime thriller are the criminals themselves -- and James Carlos Blake nails that delicate edge where it feels completely right to want the bad boys to win.

Even better, in THE HOUSE OF WOLFE -- his third in this sequence -- Blake pulls in a pistol-packing and athletic young cousin, Rayo Luna Wolfe, part of the Mexican side of the arms-running clan. When kidnappers seize her pretty-but-tough American cousin Jessica Juliet Wolfe after a luxe and lovely family wedding in Mexico City, Rayo provides the information that her dangerous Texas family members need for chasing down "El Galán" and his ransom-demanding crew. And then, of course, jumps into the chase herself.

Blake is a consummate storyteller, pushing the pace, the suspense, and the risks in fast short chapters that leap among the points of view of the very determined Jessie, family problem solver Charlie, and even the kidnappers. Jessie's decision to figure out -- and somehow do -- what her great-aunt Catalina would have done turns her into a kidnapper's worst nightmare.

Prepare for high body counts; it's easy to compare Blake's "border noir" to Lee Child's cross-country adventures with Jack Reacher, but I actually find the Mexican scene and the wonderfully mixed motives of the Wolfe clan calling to mind John Gilstrap's fierce rescues and chases. Not for the squeamish ... but probably all too true to some situations of lawlessness South of the Border, and a rattling good adventure. I'll be looking for the two earlier books (The Rules of Wolfe; Country of the Bad Wolfes), as well as future crime fiction from James Carlos Blake, who "was born in Mexico, raised in Texas, and now lives in Arizona." Grove Atlantic, now bringing out the Mysterious Press imprint, carries the relevant website.

Billy Boyle #9, THE REST IS SILENCE, James R. Benn (World War II)

The ninth "Billy Boyle World War II Mystery" from James R. Benn came out last fall -- and, knowing it would be an exceptional read, I tucked away a copy of THE REST IS SILENCE for later enjoyment. The reviews that came out at publication were terrific, and I now can add my "yes!" to the others.

Benn's series began with Billy Boyle in 2006, as Soho Press brought the first book out within its Soho Crime label. On his author website, Benn describes the books as a historical mystery series set within the Allied High Command during World War II. That means the first book opens in 1942, as Billy Boyle, a young police detective in a Boston Irish family, discovers that his parents' attempt to keep him home for the war has failed -- "Uncle Ike," General Eisenhower, is headed out to the battlefields, and Boyle, an investigator for the general's most private quandaries, is also on his way to war.

Each volume has moved the war along to another locale, another crisis point, and at the start of THE REST IS SILENCE, it's April 1944 and Billy's assignment takes him to the southwest coast of England, where Allied Forces are preparing to invade Europe -- preparing, that is, for D-Day. The discovery of a murdered man in a very sensitive location means Boyle and his investigating partner Kaz (Lieutenant and Baron Piotr Kazimierz) need to nail the crime and criminal swiftly, to make sure nothing in the D-Day plans has been compromised.

But the family in the gracious home they visit nearby, where a wounded colleague who's been Kaz's friend is recovering, turns out to be much stranger than the first assignment, and soon Billy and Kaz are probing cautiously in an explosive mix of British antagonisms that range from class prejudice to sibling rivalry. When another death takes place, among a much larger disaster nearby, the Allied High Command detective unit expands in number, focus -- and risk.

In spite of its setting and timing, THE REST IS SILENCE is a classic police procedural, in which Billy Boyle's well-nurtured habits of appraisal and inquiry are explored deftly in Benn's polished and often evocative storytelling. I'm sure I should have put the book down more often, to tackle other tasks ... but I didn't want to, and eventually I fixed a final massive mug of tea (in sympathy with the Brits on scene) and charged through the final and engrossing chapters. I found just the right number of plot twists, and the hardest part about finishing the book was keeping them quiet -- because my husband (and partner in crime fiction) is reading this next.

No pressing need to read the earlier books in the series before this one, but if you do, some small comments  that Billy makes, as well as the book's final scene, will have extra resonance. And besides, why would you want to miss out on such good (and historically well-tuned) entertainment?

(PS: The next Billy Boyle mystery comes out in Sept 2015; start now and you have time to read, or re-read, the entire series before then.)

Saturday, March 07, 2015

THE KILLING SEASON, Mason Cross: Deadly Sniper Escapes and Starts Killing Again

I'm a devoted fan of Lee Child's Jack Reacher series -- there's something about the honor code that Reacher carries into his work that gives these fast-paced thrillers an odd satisfaction, despite their high body counts and strongly gendered character roles.

So it's interesting to see how Mason Cross changes the pattern. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, and living and writing in England, Cross's debut, THE KILLING SEASON, is set squarely in the American heartland. The premise is all too believable: A mentally very nasty sniper, sentenced to die and being transported toward his final cell, somehow ends up released as a side effect of a mob move. Or at least, that's what it first looks like to specialist Carter Blake, hired by the FBI for quick action, and the single-mom FBI special agent working with him, Elaine Banner.

Carter Blake is good -- everyone on the short list of people who know him and his work agree. But it's quickly clear that he and Banner are being used, not just by the agency but also by the Chicago sniper, as they race across the country, trying to prevent more spree killings.

Banner's colleague Steve Castle running the operation doesn't think much of her, or of the specialist tagging along. That's a problem that Carter Blake needs to manage, too, as well as chasing the killer:
"This is a warm-up," I said. "He'll move on to specific hits soon. His enemies. People who he thinks have wronged him."

Banner was still crouched next to the body. Her eyes flicked up to me, and for the first time I heard irritation in her voice. "Were you paying attention to the file? That's completely inconsistent with the established MO."

"It's not inconsistent at all," I said. "And the conditions on the ground have changed. He's a soldier. Soldiers adapt."

"Wardell's an indiscriminate killer," Castle said. ... "Maybe you need a little more time to catch up, Blake. I'm sure we can find you someplace quiet to study."

I glanced at the body again. "The last thing Wardell is," I said, "is indiscriminate. You believe that, you're making a big mistake."
See? Jack Reacher probably wouldn't have explained that much. Carter Blake has reasons to do so, including keeping his reputation and trying to get the agency to work with him, not against him. But the escaped sniper Wardell has a plan that even Carter Blake can't see for quite a while, and the clock is ticking toward the next killing spree, not far ahead.

There's a lot to enjoy in this thriller (and little sexual perversion, something of a relief lately, I have to admit) -- plus Cross provides plot twists that raise the ante, as well as the suspense. Hard to believe this one's a debut; I'll be watching for more of his books. This one was brought across from the UK by Pegasus Crime, which is releasing a nice line of mystery and crime fiction in 2015. Another from Mason Cross, The Samaritan, is scheduled for UK release this May.

Gothic Thriller: THE SEEKER, R. B. Chesterton (Carolyn Haines)

R. B. Chesterton is one of many pen names for Carolyn Haines -- and the author says she uses this one to probe the dark side of crime. THE SEEKER came out in 2014, and the softcover became available from Pegasus Crime a couple of weeks ago. So if you haven't tried this author under her noir-ish nom de plume yet, here's a good opportunity.

THE SEEKER is not just dark -- it's creepy. Aine Cahill's graduate studies at Boston's Brandeis University have taken her in two deliberately opposite directions: away from her Irish immigrant family and its "curse" that's migrated with the family to the South, erupting in Kentucky whiskey-running followed by a modern specialty in OxyContin ("hillbilly heroin"); and toward her great-great-great-great aunt Bonnie Cahill, who may have been Henry David Thoreau's lover during his retreat at Walden Pond.

But the further Aine reaches in on-site research in Massachusetts, the more strongly she finds her stay by Thoreau's pond haunted, by terrifying shreds of a past that she never dreamed of when she figured she'd track an unknown literary love affair. Two suitors also pursue her -- and even as she yields to the promised attention, a particularly nasty haunting occupies the same space and time:
No matter that Mischa was not in the cabin. She was in my head, and I had no clue how to exorcise her. Tomorrow, though, I would explore that option. There were plenty of Catholic churches in Concord, and through I'd left the pomp and ritual of the church far behind me, I knew where to find a priest.

I drifted into sleep, and found myself floating ... Struggle as I might, I couldn't break the thrall of the whale.

When no land was visible on the horizon, the whale surfaced. One blurry eye pinned me, and a rush of red blood shot from its blowhole. "You've met your destiny, Aine Cahill."
Think Nathaniel Hawthorne crossed with Steven King, and you're close to what R. B. Chesterton provides here. Keep the lights on, and the doors locked, while you read.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


There's a lot to discuss in terms of the new book from Vermont author Don Bredes, POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD. Fortunately, for readers who emerge from this dystopian novel eager to talk with someone about some of the pressing aspects, Bredes is hosting passionate discussions; check in at his website, and click through to the topics that burn for you.

But first you'll need to read the book (of course). It's not a mystery, yet I want to write about it here because (a) the author's local (yeah, we do that at Kingdom Books), (b) the topics embedded in the tale are hot ones, and (c) the book has been described as YA (young adult) fantasy.

Let's get to the plot: Fifteen-year-old Polly Lightfoot, a gifted "natural" witch whose magic still benefits from the words found in spells, is supposed to be hiding her talents while living with an aunt and uncle in New Florida. Her father's trying to keep her safer than she would be in their original home up where New England once was -- the area's been taken over by the post-nuclear-war forces that insist on complete Christianity, and even burn witches alive.

But living with her relatives includes obeying them and their pastor, and Polly can't do it. With the unexpected arrival of her animal familiar, the raven Balthazar, who can communicate with her directly, she's motivated to run away, head north, try to get home to where people accept her for herself.

Thus begins an epic journey through areas of environmental collapse, radiation danger, clusters of "frenemies" who will assist Polly under some conditions, then turn her in under others. It's a Pilgrim's Progress in dystopian attire, and I would toss away the "fantasy" label and replace it with "magical realism" -- parallel to Howard Frank Mosher's Walking to Gatlinburg  and Disappearances. (Not coincidentally, Mosher and Bredes are long-time friends.)

Classic analysis of genre novels -- those that submit to such genre conventions as having an ending that somehow mirrors and fulfills the opening, and a main character whose strengths and weaknesses interact with situations and eventually justify the good or sad ending -- often consider two arcs that define the book: an arc of plot, and an arc of character. Powerful novels often make the two interdependent. As a simple example (since we're talking teenaged protagonists), Harry Potter becomes courageous and moral through his choices in frightening and distressing conflicts. At one point in the noted seven-book series, the very wise wizard Albus Dumbledore shows Harry that even a mythic sort of situation can't force a person to be a particular way; it's one's choices that create the path.

Looking at POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD in these terms, the plot arc -- escaping oppression, traveling a long distance with little support, evade enemies, reaching (we hope) safety -- is straightforward, and Bredes enables its forward motion through Polly's friend on the road, Leon, as well as the short-phrased guidance of Balthazar flying ahead and above. The character arc is set in motion through Polly's age, 15: We may assume she is naive in many ways, unskilled in wilderness survival, semi-skilled in the magic that makes her a witch, and is going to deepen as a person while she remedies these "not-yet" factors of herself. Classic "YA" direction also assumes Polly will move from teenager status to something more adult, by experiencing loss, making uncomfortable decisions, and following her longing to connect with her father and her "people" in the north.

Some of this does in fact take place; there are also character changes in Polly's friend Leon that are interesting to look back on. It was intriguing to me, though, that I could have replaced Polly with an adult (say, someone in her twenties or thirties) in much of the book. In other words, the ways the plot arc and character arc connect have less to do with the drama of entering adulthood, and more to do with a determination to keep moving north, across the obstacles.

Also at play in the book is a "mission." This idea is introduced in the first chapter, when we learn that Polly's father has a mission for her to tackle in Florida, as well as wanting to keep her safe there. I felt that the mission rarely took on definition, though, as Polly showed little personal commitment to it -- just suddenly accusing herself of failing it, and at another point, being assisted to regain an item she's lost possession of, but neither moment takes up many pages or much room in her emotions. I would have liked to see the mission fleshed out more -- which may come in part from my enjoyment of the way mission and mythic are often bound together in "fantasy" genre books.

I'll be interested in following the path of this novel in the wide world; will teens read it, or will it become largely a book that adults seek out, looking for how Bredes handles the "cli-fi" theme (social collapse melding with climate collapse) and appreciating the connections also to the Salem witch trials of New England and Arthur Miller's The Crucible? For me, the book also reawakens an urge to re-read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, another grim look at where dogma and destruction can lead.

Last but not least, a word to those who may have strong religious frameworks: Don't look for them in POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD, where Christians are fanatics, and witches are mostly born that way. But do take a look at this recent New York Times blog post, which I think is worth considering in terms of how this book, and others moving into the YA field, are constructed: Childhood Heroes ... by Rachel Kadish.

Thanks, Don Bredes, for stepping forward to promote discussion of our pressing issues as a culture and as an ecosystem.  And a warm thank you to Green Writers Press, publisher, for daring to step into controversial fiction in its Vermont and national profile.

Icelandic Noir: SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Publisher Minotaur Books has labeled SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, the February release from Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, "a thriller." That's not the half of it -- this intense and thoroughly frightening investigation featuring Thóra Gudmundsdóttir (fifth in the series) is also a ghost story, a horror story, and an entangled and engrossing investigation into crime and criminals.

Investigating on behalf of her legal office, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir goes to a secure psychiatric facility to meet a very twisted and unpleasant long-term inmate who wants to sponsor re-opening a case -- but not his own. It's unclear why, but he asserts that a younger man at the facility, Jakob, who has Down Syndrome, isn't guilty of the arson that's put him here. The investigation bumps up against more death and destruction, and although Thóra realizes she's being used in some way, there has clearly been a miscarriage of justice and her task is to prove it and rebalance the scales.

Brace for a slight resistance in the translation, as well as the protagonist -- although Thóra is clearly heroic in her choice to accept the case and investigate a series of horrible events, it's hard to warm up to her. It's her mission that's compelling, instead: to learn rapidly the laws around imprisonment of the disabled, to protect herself from the air of menace surrounding so many people in this investigation, and prevent the unpleasant and even evil aspects of the case from affecting her home.

"Noir" means black, and this one's steadfastly dark in subject matter; it's a good fit if you're a Kurt Wallander fan, isn't as extreme as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and gives a persuasive look at social aspects of crime that need attention. It's not necessary to read Yrsa's earlier work, but if you're collecting Scandinavian or, more broadly, international noir, I'd recommend the full series.

Cara Black, MURDER ON THE CHAMP DE MARS (March Publication)

I love this image of Cara Black with her newest Aimée Leduc investigation: MURDER ON THE CHAMP DE MARS. This is the 15th in the well-liked series, and Aimée is at a critical point in her career and her personal life: She's a single mom to a six-month-old, struggling to keep her detection and security business profitable, while sleep-deprived and always late for everything (for those who don't have kids, here's the thing about it -- with each addition to the household, it's harder and harder to get somewhere on time).

MURDER ON THE CHAMP DE MARS open in Paris (of course!) with the detective once again racing the clock, trying to complete a surveillance task and still get home in time for her own darling baby's christening. But what should be a sweet (and brief) event with little Chloé and a few friends turns personally menacing, with the unexpected arrival of her ex-lover, father of her baby -- and he's not there to reconcile with her, but to introduce his newly acquired wife, as well as a hunger to take custody of the baby.

Small wonder that the arrival of an important clue to Aimée's own past, in the form of a boy who is a French Gypsy, one of the Romany people known in Paris as les manouches. The boy needs immediate help for his mother, who's in a hospital, on her deathbed, insisting on revealing only to Aimée a secret about Aimée's own (long-dead) father. It's a dangerous secret, one with roots in the Second World War, the concentration camps, and people still living who have betrayed each other.

Black does a masterful job of keeping the threads of suspense pulled taut, and braiding this complex investigation that puts Aimée Leduc and her family, friends, and career at risk in two directions at once. No, you don't need to read the others in the series before this one, although it would help you grasp why this detective wears Louboutin heels while on stake-out and considers a vintage Courreges dress to be part of her surveillance uniform -- so you may want to indulge in the others after devouring this latest title. The series is cleverly set in the 1990s, so technology has almost no role in the detection, and a quick mind and open heart and a team of allies are the essentials of the job. From Soho Crime, of course! (March 3 release.)

Pub Date March 3: KITTENS CAN KILL, Clea Simon

Here's a title to reserve for March reading, a classic traditional mystery with plenty of twists and memorable characters -- several of them on four legs.

Those familiar with Massachusetts author Clea Simon's "pet noir" series are already accustomed to the wild premise of this amateur sleuth series: Pru Marlowe, an "animal behaviorist" who works via referrals through the local vet, animal shelter, and even the town, specializes in changing how critters behave. But her methods go beyond the standard reward and reliability systems -- because Pru is also an animal psychic, someone who "hears" words from the cats, squirrels, dogs, and even a ferret around her.

Although that's obviously a great tool in her work (because she can find out, for example, exactly why a dog is barking so much), it's a personal handicap of increasing proportions. Earlier titles in the series showed Pru's hesitation about getting involved with the local police detective, Jim Creighton, KITTENS CAN KILL finds Pru routinely allowing Creighton into her home at various hours, and the couple is working out what they can and can't ask each other. But above all, since even Pru initially thought the animal voices she heard showed she was crazy, she's desperate not to reveal her talent to the police officer.
My next call was to Creighton.

"Hey, Jim. Just a heads-up." He was driving -- I could hear the road.  That as fine. I planned on keeping it short. "I'm going to bring the Canadays' kitten back after the funeral. Jill, the youngest daughter, just okayed that."

"That's fine, Pru. Turns out we don't need him for any testing."

"No death by kitten?" I was joking. ...

"Look, Pru, you know I can't give you details, but I think it's fairly safe to say that the lab won't need the kitten. They've got enough to work with without it.."

"So, you do suspect something?"
Creighton may not intend to give Pru a hand (or any information), but he's not good enough to prevent her insight. And he has his own about her. Pru's secret -- shared only with her loyal but often sardonic and stand-offish cat Wallis -- gets increasingly hard to protect. After all, it looks pretty irrational that Pru is insisting on keeping and protecting the life of a 6-week-old white kitten found next to the body of a local lawyer. Who would believe her if she said the kitten had witnessed a killing? In fact, among the lawyer's three competitive daughters, there's even some notion that the kitten's arrival caused the (accidental) death of their dad. One daughter is even pushing to euthanize the wee ball of fluff, out of anger at the death.

But Pru and her resident four-footed ally, Wallis, know better. Still, sorting out the few phrases that the inexperienced kitten conveys isn't easy, especially as time presses -- there's a will being read, a controversy over who controls the kitten, and more wickedness that Pru barely guesses at, before it's not just the kitten who is in danger.

Skeptics, relax: The solving of the crime and Pru's revelations about the people involved come through hard, traditional investigative work. Consider the pet psychic aspect to be scene music, if you like, and plunge on into this well-constructed and intriguing mystery. Clea Simon knows what she's doing with those three sisters, as well as Pru Marlowe's eccentric support team. It's a good read, and a great distraction for the in-between season of March, coming up.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Vermont Gothic Thriller: THE SILENT GIRLS, Eric Rickstad

It's been a few years since Eric Rickstad's first book, Reap, garnered so much attention and introduced the Northeast Kingdom region of Vermont to a fresh set of readers. In THE SILENT GIRLS, Rickstad goes well beyond the ticking clock of suspense and the dangers of a thriller, to the very creepy aspects of a true Gothic. You know what I mean, if you've read Jennifer McMahon lately -- but subtract any chance of humor along the way.

A short first chapter, datelined Halloween, sixteen years earlier than the rest of the book, lays out a bloody and painful horror component at the start. But then THE SILENT GIRLS shifts apparent subgenres, becoming a classic police procedural, Frank Rath -- once a noted police detective in northern Vermont but working as a private investigator instead -- agrees to back up a local investigation into a missing teen. When Rath and his official colleagues find four more missing teens in the area over the past two years, the pattern hints at a serial killer. But the girls who are missing seem to have nothing in common: not body shape, grades, background. What could be the motive for their abductions? And is there a chance to save any of their lives? When one teen's body is found, the case takes on even more urgency.

Rath is a classic noir investigator, haunted by inner turmoil and guilt and a bad alcohol habit; his fellow investigators also show aspects that could make an employer uneasy, from anger to addiction of sorts. And what Rath has kept secret, especially from his adopted daughter, is erupting in unpredictable ways, thanks to an unexpected parole hearing for the killer who'd ended Rath's earlier career path.

Brace for dark, grim, and even horrific in this one -- an excellent interview with Rickstad (click here) tips a hat to the recent trends in Scandinavian crime writing, as well as to Stephen King. The book is smoothly written, tightly paced, with a taut plot that insists on quick reading. Clear the schedule (and keep the lights on).

A quick note to fellow Vermonters: Don't try to map the towns, roads, and counties that Rickstad lays out -- they're not where you'd expect. Pretend it's all new to you. Except, of course, for that grim stretch of late October and early November weather that's been called "locking time." That, and the cruelties of some Rickstad characters and plot twists, may feel familiar, after all.

At the New Edge of Cozy: CRIMINAL CONFECTIONS, Colette London

Colette London's new "Chocolate Whisperer" mystery series begins with CRIMINAL CONFECTIONS, as top-secret consultant Hayden Mundy Moore, on hand for the noted Maison Lemaitre retreat -- a gathering of the makers of the finest chocolate products -- tries to keep her client relationships a secret, even while looking for her next possible consultant assignment at the posh location just outside San Francisco. Because she's on hand to rescue chocolatiers whose processes hit snags, she's got to stay quiet about her actual contracts. An expert in the many forms of Theobroma cacao and its exquisite flavors and textures, she's honored (but a bit out of her depth, in terms of elegance and wealth!) to attend the conference, and she's invited her hunky bodyguard Danny to keep her company.

So it's a shock when the Lemaitre staffer she's been worried about turns out to be a victim during the first day's events:
Instead, I saw Adrienne. Her limp body was propped in Nina's arms, slumped at a strange angle. Her head lolled. Her chef's coat was stained with blood. Her sleeves were speckled with it, too, as though she'd held up her arms to ward off ... something.

Something, I realized, that had killed her.

Adrienne was ... dead?

It didn't seem possible. But then suddenly Danny was there.

He was fighting through the crowd, pulling me into his arms, tucking my head against his shoulder. "That's enough now."

Oh God. That's when I knew it was true.
Astute readers may already notice more descriptions of bodies (living and dead) and their positions and contacts than many a mystery can boast. And that's surely part of this author's established style -- because Colette London is a new pen name for established romance author Lisa Plumley.

But in spite of its foodie angle, sensuous moments, and sweet recipes (included at the end), CRIMINAL CONFECTIONS is more edgy than many of today's food-related "cozy" mysteries. Hayden takes investigation seriously, and the malicious motivations of some of her fellow chocolate-linked conference attendees are downright dangerous at times.

Even more important, you know the notion that a "cozy" involves a cat and a cup of tea? In this one, even a warm cup of chocolate can be dangerous. Hayden's escapades give a whole new sense to the host who may offer a drink by asking, "What's your poison?"

I'm particularly intrigued by the edginess in CRIMINAL CONFECTIONS because recent work from another author known for her gentler mysteries, Maine writer Lea Wait, also has a fresh uptick in the sting of malice and suspense (see Twisted Threads review).  I'll be watching for more of this trend. I think it's a healthy twist toward blurring the edges of today's mystery subgenres!

But -- back to CRIMINAL CONFECTIONS: Hayden's task quickly shifts from kitchen consults to sorting out whose motivations are murderous, and who might benefit from the death of a significant Maison Lemaitre staffer -- one who actually should have been worried about Hayden's in-process consulting report, about to be issued to company head Christian Lemaitre. Could someone have known what she'd found in the firm's chocolate lines?

I enjoyed the setting, the scenario, and the plot twists, as well as Hayden's confusion of lust and affection for the men in her life. London's style gave me the feeling that this first book of the series had been reworked too many times, with multiple pauses per page for Hayden to analyze what's going on. I'm hoping the second in the series, Dangerously Dark, will move boldly ahead and avoid the "hesitation cuts" of the series debut. After all, the puns and wordplay in this series are so marvelous that it must have a terrific future. Even the cover of this debut announces: "Revenge is bittersweet." Ah, chocolate!