Thursday, November 13, 2014


November 4 was Election Day, and the birthday of one of my long-gone grandfathers, and ... release day for the third (and final) Mara Dyer thriller: THE RETRIBUTION OF MARA DYER.

When I reviewed the first of the trilogy, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, I wasn't sure whether I whether I wanted to get involved with the paranormal side of the character. But the character, ah, the character! Mara Dyer is one of the best ... tough, determined, sometimes so angry at what's been done to her and her friends and family that she's a menace, a danger, a disaster crashing into your reading room and your heart (or that's how it felt to me). The second book, The Evolution of Mara Dyer, filled the promises of the first and (I have to confess) induced me to place the earliest "pre-order" I've ever placed for a book ... I needed to know where author Michelle Hodkin would take this.

And it was worth the wait.

Mara Dyer and a few other teens find themselves part of a complicated medical and psychological experiment tied to a mutant gene that sometimes stays quiet, and sometimes "manifests." And when it does affect the person hosting it, the gene produces paranormal abilities: the ability to persuade near-hypnotically by voice, or to hear someone's thoughts, or, in Mara's case, to damage and even destroy one's enemies. Threads from the earlier books revealed that the effects of this mutant gene were present among people for generations -- creating some of the powerful dark myths of humanity.

What's not clear until the third book, though, is whether Mara must give up all the complex other parts of herself to fulfill where the gene leads (and whether she can ever rediscover her connection to Noah, another genetically influenced teen who's vanished) -- and, more urgently, whether the teens can hold their own against a sophisticated cabal of adults who variously want to treat them as experiments, manipulate them to change the world, or aim them like weapons without volition.

This is neither a Hunger Games trilogy nor a Harry Potter adventure. Mara's genetic burden isn't likely to add up to a happy ending, and she's carrying a burden of guilt for her own actions that's rapidly crippling her emotionally. I wasn't fully satisfied with the ending -- like many other readers, I felt there were plot threads that hadn't quite come clear -- but I wouldn't have missed this for anything. It's left me a bit confused, a little heartbroken, on edge, questioning ... and wow, any book that does that, well, that's a book I want to re-read. Later.

Buy the trilogy for yourself, or if you're giving it to a "young adult," follow up on your gift by getting some discussions going on the violence, malevolence, and yes, retribution in the compelling thriller. (The author's website is not up to date as I write this, but still: visit it here.)

We had one of those mysterious married-couple-miscommunications on CONVERSION, Katherine Howe's intriguing exploration of a prep school in Massachusetts where the girls under the most pressure in their college applications are becoming ill, one after another. I thought Dave said I needed to read it; he can't recall ever hearing about it! Never mind, it was well worth getting a copy. New Englanders may guess from the setting -- Danvers, Mass., which was the site of the Puritan-era Salem Witch Trials -- that wrapping the students in a modern-day media circus can't disguise the contagion of their disorders, or the suspicion that these are being orchestrated in some way. The author's parallel story, among the original group of "Salem" girls, probes the life of the one accuser historically known to have admitted her illness wasn't a result of witchcraft. But even realizing the narratives are intentionally parallel doesn't spoil the quick and emotionally powerful movement of Howe's binocular plot. I enjoyed this, and I already know which teenaged girl I'm giving it to. Author website here. 

The publisher of THE BORGIAS by Jean Plaidy sent a copy here, as part of a promotion recently. I'm not sure what the timing represents -- the two historical novels that make up this chunky paperback feature Lucrezia Borgia, famous for her 15th-century life of intrigue (Madonna of the Seven Hills; Light on Lucrezia). Betrothed and finally married as a teen at a time when, among powerful European leaders, such contracts were common, Lucrezia wielded immense power as part of Italy's most forceful -- and maybe least gentle! -- family. Today her name is associated with both intrigue and poison.

But when Jean Plaidy -- actually one of the many pen names of Eleanor Hibbert (you may know her better as Victoria Holt; check out her astounding literary life here) -- wrote this pair of novels in 1958, her research led her on a very different path. As a result, this pair of books is less in the mystery genre, and more along the line of a sweet and decent girl who became an assertive teen and then a victim of the sexism of her time. Plaidy's pacing and narrative hold up well, and the story still is fresh and surprising. But it's actually a bit tame compared to today's YA ficton! So if you're teasing a teen into history with the vicious side of the Borgias and similar nefarious figures of the past, consider adding this one to the stack for a surprising "other side" to the Borgia saga. I've set my copy aside for a playwright who may use it for reference.

Making a holiday shopping list? After you think about these, consider delving into the titles that were nominated this year for Edgar Awards, at the pinnacle of mystery writing:
All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry
(Penguin Young Readers Group – Viking Juvenile)
Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
(Random House Children's Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)
Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy
(Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse)
How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller
(Penguin Young Readers Group – Razorbill)
Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher
(Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

And I'll have a few more titles to mention before the holidays arrive.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Massachusetts Murder, Memorable Quaker Sleuth: Tace Baker's BLUFFING IS MURDER

Back in the 1990s I enjoyed a Quaker mystery series from Irene Allen, but it looks like the four books ended around 2001 and the author has retired -- including perhaps retiring from her "day job" as a geology professor and author in that field, under her "real" name, Dr. E. Kirsten Peters.

While looking back at those, I also ran across mention of another book that I'd never regarded as "Quaker" (that marvelous back-to-basics worship community formally known as the Society of Friends): The Witch of Blackbird Pond, one of my favorite "young adult" historical mysteries,

Now, with the November 11 release of BLUFFING IS MURDER from Tace Baker, we have the second in a fresh energetic series featuring amateur sleuth Lauren Rousseau. Like the author herself, Lauren is a linguist, and expects to be addressed as "Dr. Rousseau." But when the book opens, she's just headed into her first real summer break, the one that follows gaining tenure, when the career track makes some breathing space. And Lauren has extra flexibility because her habitual boyfriend Zac, who's been offering more commitment than she wanted, is flying out to Haiti for a family emergency. Lauren's on her own, and testing the he–she waters in her walkably cozy coastal Massachusetts town.

So it's tough luck that one of her first summer adventures leads to her discovering the body of Charles Heard, a Trustee of the local land trust. Lauren's been more involved with her college than her town (where she's a relatively recent transplant), but she quickly learns multiple reasons for bad feeling against Charles Heard -- including the way the land trust where he's so influential has been holding back money slated to improve the town's school, so the kids aren't getting their fair share of programs. Even the language program's being cut, a blow that especially hits hard for Lauren, with her fondness for many languages.

Author Tace Baker -- a pen name for Edith Maxwell, Massachusetts author of this series, a second one involving the "locavore" movement, and branching into an upcoming third under the pen name Maddie Day -- brings a good background to the book, with her own doctoral dissertation in linguistics, as well as many other writing hats. But what I enjoyed in particular is her sense of the emotional life of a smart, savvy, and single woman of a certain age -- mid thirties, here -- who's very, very work-capable but who's somewhat insecure about whether she is in or out of the dating game, and as a result, doesn't really check into or trust her own misgivings about some of the men who admire her. Because it's Lauren's casual acceptance of what her martial arts teacher Dan Talbot tells her, and the invitations he provides, that makes her vulnerable. And that's what takes her further into sleuthing than is wise ... and puts her under threat repeatedly.

Doubling the plot thread (and Lauren's emotional vulnerability) is the long-past death of this sleuth's father -- something she hasn't had time to look into until now. Is her hunt for that truth also putting her at risk?

Last but not least, what does Lauren bring to the sleuthing skills table as a result of being a lifelong Quaker, with a tradition of silent meditation and a search for divine guidance?

If, like me, you enjoyed that earlier series by Irene Allen, or you're curious about Quakers in fiction, or you enjoy a strong and vibrant amateur sleuth with an occasional but very human slip of judgment, check out this series. Book one is called Speaking of Murder (2012).  The series is from Barking Rain Press -- which offers the first four chapters of BLUFFING IS MURDER  free, in exchange for your contact info (click here) --  and the author will have a few touring events (see her website), as well as a number of online interviews. Thanks, Edith/Tace (and Maddie!) for this enjoyable traditional mystery!

Monday, November 03, 2014

Haunted Maine Town, Haunted Investigator: THE WOLF IN WINTER, John Connolly

Each new death in our lives echoes against the earlier ones, and sets them ringing in us like a string of bells, brushed by a passing hand. Sometimes it's gentle music -- and sometimes discordant. But I have never been to a funeral, or read an obituary, without thinking of some long-passed friend or relative, and feeling an amplified loss.

How much more so must it be for a private investigator like Charlie Parker of Maine, who's seen so many tragedies. As THE WOLF IN WINTER from John Connolly opens, he and his partners in, well, vengeance maybe, or crime protection, think they've finally cornered a criminal mastermind who's killed one of their friends. There will be many chapters to go before the impact of the scene comes back into the action -- and the next chapter, from the point of view of a wolf just arriving from Canada into Maine in bitter cold, will also seem obscure for a while. But if you're a series reader, you're already aware, in the echo with earlier Charlie Parker investigations, that the wolf could parallel either a psychopathic killer or, in the sense that it's alone with its wounds, Charlie himself.

Then the action takes over.

A homeless man in Portland, Maine, Jude, has been trying to track down his daughter. It looked like he was finally about to have "family" again -- and then his daughter disappeared, and the treatment center further north where she'd been recovering is baffled, too. Then Jude dies, in circumstances that Charlie quickly realizes are staged murder ... and in a way that leaves Charlie Parker the emotional legacy of taking Jude's "missing persons" case. Where did that young woman vanish?

All paths lead to the historic rural town of Prosperous, Maine, which appears to have struck a virtual deal with a devil to prosper for centuries, against the odds. The town's leadership is ingrown and odd; the minister of its gargoyle-decorated and peculiar church even more so. Charlie attempts to call Pastor Warraner into his own mission:
"I'm searching for a missing girl. If she's alive, she's in trouble. If she's dead, someone else is. As an individual who professes to be a man of god, I'd suggest that your compassion is currently misdirected."

Warraner plunged his  hands into the pockets of his jeans as though he feared the damage he might otherwise inflict on me. He was a big man, and strong as well. If he got his hands on me, he'd do some harm. Of course, I'd shatter one of his knees before he got that close, but it wouldn't look good on my résumé. Still, all of his weight was on his left leg, which was ramrod straight. If he moved, I'd take him.

Warraner breathed deeply to calm himself and recover his dignity. The moment passed.

"You know nothing of my god, Mr. Parker," he said solemnly.
But Charlie has already guessed a lot about what's wrong in the town, and if he still has a hope of finding the missing girl, it's small, and growing fainter.

Between the steady increase of suspense, the tension in Charlie himself, and the sense that Charlie and his own friends are going to have to tackle an entire town, this thriller kept me racing from one chapter to the next. Except there are also deep things here, and not just under the town's motivations. Here's the scrap from late in the book that convinced me I'll be reading this one again, and again:
He believed that men created gods as much, if not more, than gods created men. If this old god existed, it did so because there were men and women who permitted it to continue to exist through their beliefs. They fed it, and it, in turn, fed them.
It's necessary to accept that level of presence of the "paranormal" in this page-turner, and maybe a wee bit more, but ... I'm a hard-core, non-paranormal reader, and THE WOLF IN WINTER struck me as making complete sense. When the wolves of greed and pride are loose in the landscape, there's going to be an echo, a response.

Those bells are ringing again.

Friday, October 31, 2014

LEAVING TIME: Jodi Picoult Wraps Family, Grief, and Love in a Mystery, with Elephants

The teaser stories released ahead of the publication of Jodi Picoult's newest novel, LEAVING TIME, are small polished gems: "Where There's Smoke" enters the world of the has-been fortune teller Serenity Jones, who'll come to teen Jenna Metcalf's assistance in the novel; and "Larger Than Life" steps inside the scientific life of Jenna's missing (presumed dead) mom, Alice, in her work with elephants in Botswana. It's tempting to see the stories as exercises along the way to the overall "big book" -- character studies, where action reveals an interior landscape. I expect to read them over again, with as much pleasure.

LEAVING TIME is in many ways a traditional mystery: Jenna turns 13 and decides to hire the only private investigator she can afford, Virgil Stanhope, whose connection with Alice's disappearance a decade ago means he's easy to recruit to rescue the failed case. And Jenna struggles to believe her mom may still be alive somewhere, even though she can't believe her loving mother could have voluntarily left her at the family's elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire.

Picoult's active author tour and rich author website ( reveal much of the emotional ground of this novel: the love between elephants, which she explored herself in her research, and the time for letting go of her own teenage daughter to college. The book is sure to resonate with those who are already caught by those two themes -- it's a love story across generations and across species, written with her usual swift-paced storytelling. As a mystery, it has the scent of an early private investigator (PI) narrative, mingling with that incense of the mysteriously correct fortune teller tagging along on the case.

There's a major twist near the end of the book, which of course I won't reveal -- except to say that if you're looking for a traditional mystery that follows all the rules, you'll just have to loosen up and go with the flow on this one. And, heads up to you Picoult traditionalists, it's not a medicolegal thriller this time. It's a pleasure to read. But for re-reading, I'm going back to those two stunning stories. Better download them (at a token price) while they're still available, if you'd like the added insight into the craft of this bestselling author.

Reading a "First Book" by an Established Author: THE COLD DISH, Craig Johnson

I review a lot of "first books" by mystery and thriller authors, and usually I mention this either by saying (1) it's got some small flaws (like most first books) but it's so good that I want to read the next one or (2) this is so good that the author must have written some other books first (that maybe didn't get to publication) -- incredibly good with no sign of being a first book!

Last week I took time away from the incoming stacks to read Craig Johnson's first, which is also the first Walt Longmire mystery, set in northern Wyoming -- it dates back to December 2004, but just became widely known because a TV network turned Johnson's series into the rave-reviewed LONGMIRE series (incomprehesively canceled recently in someone's short-sighted business decision, but so good that it's sure to rise again).

I enjoyed every page. I didn't skim any of it. And it definitely did not feel like a first book (but hold that thought).

All the heart-ache elements of Walt Longmire ring true: his understandable alcohol problem (his wife died unexpectedly, he's living in the unfinished house that was going to be their home together, his job has a certain built-in instability); his deep friendship across ethnic boundaries with Henry Laughing Bear, cemented by the war experiences they have in common; his wordless longing for comfort that become obvious when a woman looks at him kindly, but on which he's powerless to act. The plot elements and twists are polished and smooth; the tension and pace -- as Longmire tries to figure out who is taking revenge on a group of casual and ugly-hearted rapists -- steadily ramp upward, and an intense early-season snowstorm and a set of powerful firearms in the wrong hands drive the threat to page-turner level.

In fact, the only thing that bothered me was, when Longmire finally figured out the killer, he was still struggling with the motive, even when he knew who it must have been. I didn't feel like I'd had enough hints along the way to be able to urge him to the right conclusion (haven't you done that as you've seen what the sleuth has overlooked?). And when I mentioned this to Dave, who has read ALL of the 11 books Johnson's provided, Dave tipped his head to the side and commented mildly, "Well, it is his first book, you know."

Yes, it is. Thank goodness there's that tiny, tiny weak spot, where I can reassure myself, "This author wasn't born into the life of mystery writing with all connections already at professional level."

But so close, so close. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of Johnson's Longmire series.

PS: The title, in case you haven't guessed, is from the translated French expression, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." Pierre Ambroise François Cholderlos de la Clos.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Diversion: The War Memoir That Tells It All -- MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY, Brian Turner

Can we make it a military rule from now on, that every large group of soldiers include an embedded poet? Incognito, of course -- Brian Turner kept his poetry writing to himself while he led missions. It wouldn't have fit the persona that he needed to convey as a leader under fire.

But now, 11 years after "Sergeant T" departed with his men for the Iraqui desert, this highly trained observer and wordsmith gives us the reality of war. The exhilaration of enlisting into a (mostly) male experience that your older, battle-experienced relatives will now share with you. The joy of feeling competent, and the goofiness of being "boys" with girlie magazines, guns to shoot, silly secrets. And the horror of death -- including potentially your own.

Turner gives us the men as they prepare to invade a presumed insurgent's family home:
The drivers will fire up their engines and check their gauges. Across town, a small child kisses her father on his cheek. The soldiers inhale the harsh smoke, lean their heads back and exhale up toward the dead surface of the moon. And -- though they darken into silhouettes as the night draws on -- the soldiers brighten inside. They crackle in nerve and flame. The gas stations and Laundromats and unemployment lines and hardware stores of America disappear. For now, they are soldiers. They are giants standing over the model of someone else's life. Humming with adrenaline, they stand in the great sweep of history -- past, passing and yet to come -- and take it all in.
That's right, MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY is written in prose. The stories follow each other, rooted in daily life on base, in trucks, behind guns ... and even when Turner stacks the segments on top of each other, pushing the despair and craziness into a ladder to that darkening dead moon, he's telling stories.

Except every now and then, just the way he does right after this passage, he turns the words into something like a pounding drum, when he writes: "The soldiers enter the house, the soldiers enter the house."

There's immense love in here, as well as carefully chosen words and images that bring hard choices to life. In a way that only the return from, and processing of, Vietnam could allow, Turner also opens up the view of what it's like to "come home" -- carrying indelible memories of pain and risk and loss and fear, endless fear, from a battleground where a child or a gift can disguise a deadly threat.

I'm not, in general, a fan of war stories. But this potent braid of necessity, excitement, and guilt and grief -- this is worth reading more than once. This is what a poem that learns to be a long, long story becomes, and lingers. Grandfather, father, and soldier son -- and more.

If only it were a real rule: Tell the truth, the way a really fine poet must always strive for.

Oh yes, you can read this without knowing Brian Turner's war poetry. But I've been a fan of all his work -- poems, New York Times blog, more poems, and now this memoir. For some perspective, click here for more discussion of Brian Turner's writing.

Most of all, after reading MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY: What story would you share if someone asked you what your war was like?

The book, the movie, the book: THE GERMAN DOCTOR, Lucía Puenzo

Sometimes the whole book process gets very complicated. Established Argentinian scriptwriter Lucía Puenzo wrote The German Doctor,  which has been published in 10 languages -- then she directed and produced it as a dramatic thriller film. Now IPG (Independent Publishers Group, in its Trafalgar Square Publishing imprint) is releasing the translation in America in November.

The thriller fits into that narrow subgenre of material rooted in history, but taking place in what may be "the present." At first, all we know is that the doctor is hiding in Argentina, and is obsessed with racial purity and his experiments; he has brought his notebooks and even some samples with him, and he has a particular fondness for examples of how racial interbreeding causes genetic disasters (to his mind). And, oh yes, he's also obsessed with twins.

If you've delved into the dark horrors of the Holocaust, you already know who "José" resembles: the notorious Josef Mengele, a physician whose experiments in the concentration camps ignored scientific method and truth, and instead caused maximum distortion and pain. He's known to have fled Germany in 1945, arrived in Argentina in 1949, and when hunted by those seeking justice, he relocated first to Paraguay and then to Brazil.

In Puenzo's dark and very creepy narrative (Mengele is seducing Lilith, a 12-year-old girl who suffers from dwarfism, and he and she both are thrilled by the process), we meet José at his departure from Buenos Aires, about to cross the desert to a more welcoming and protective community of Nazi German refugees in Paraguay. The rigors of the journey provide entry for him into the not-so-innocent Lilith's family, just in time to assist with the survival of prematurely born twins.

At stake: whether Lilith will resist or encourage the final seduction, which turns out not to be sex but science; what's being perpetrated on the twin babies; how the community will react to recognizing the wicked doctor in its midst; and even a hint of suspense around whether the German doctor has any humanity in him (a Native resident sees his hollowness).

David William Foster's translation is smooth and quirky at the same time, conveying the formality and awkwardness of German into Spanish, upper class to lower, and more. Here's a sample, from the doctor's point of view as he starts to cross the desert:
When he was advised to leave Buenos Aires immediately, they had promised him at the same time that the south of Argentina was as close as he could get to German Switzerland. They spoke to him of trees, lakes, snow-covered mountains. You people were not the only ones who did a good job of cleansing, they said. They told him stories of Indian attacks that had dominated the same arid lands he was now crossing at a snail's pace, with his eyes glued to the three small blonde heads examining him out of the corner of their eyes ... He felt anguish crawling up his legs like spiders.
Whether José's sadism will be recognized, along with his unmodified facial features, continues to raise the ante; so does the arrival in the area of a Nazi hunter who knows this doctor all too well.

It's a grim book, admirably paced, and steps into one of the nastiest aspects of Argentine and world history adeptly -- we know how the doctor's story will end (he died in 1979 and was buried under a false name; his remains were verified in 1985), but this crime novel lingers within the potent years of his life in the New World. Puenzo creates Ultimate Creepy effectively, complete with dolls (see the book cover?), and tells a powerful story that, unfortunately, I will probably never forget.

And oh yes -- coming to a theatre near you. Watch for its Spanish name, too: Wakolda.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Really? A Very Good "Jane Austen Mystery"? Author Stephanie Barron - Former CIA Intelligence Analyst

No, I didn't realize Stephanie Barron's background before I read her new book (released today!), JANE AND THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. To be blunt, I wouldn't have touched a "Jane Austen mystery" even if I were snowed in for a weekend, except ... well, gosh-darn it, I've learned to count on Soho Crime for tight, well-plotted crime fiction with unforgettable characters. So when an advance copy of this book arrived along with the new Stuart Neville "Belfast Noir" volume (also released today), I gritted my teeth and started the first chapter.

About fifteen chapters later, I was still reading.

Barron's actually written 15 books since her stint at the CIA, and this one is intelligent, entertaining, and a classic puzzle mystery in the best English tradition. Way back in my past are a couple of years spent re-reading Georgette Heyer's best English Regency fiction, and Barron has the same knack for a clever protagonist with an irrepressible sense of humor and conviction under her constrictive clothing. This may not be the Jane Eyre you've pictured, but why not -- a spunky author who's defied her conventional brother in order to write her sharp-tongued and observant social-criticism-disguised-as-fiction, with an eccentric mother, and a passle of neighbors determined to enjoy the holiday season in spite of a heavy snowstorm. In face, in the first chapter, Jane, her mother, her sister, and her niece are victims of a carriage-and-wagon accident in the snowy night, and hence meet the elegant Raphael West, son of the noted artist Benjamin West (I looked them up; they were as real as Jane).

Despite her sense of reserve and a well-learned lesson in not trusting, Jane is drawn to West as a partner investigator, as deaths accumulate around them at a snow-struck country country manor:
"The ice on the lake is not yet thick enough to cut and stack in blocks in this room," Raphael West observed, "or we should not have found space to enter."

"You were here when [XX] met his death?" I said stupidly. "Then you must have seen his murderer! Or --"

"--Or killed him myself." His gaze was satiric. "Pray believe, Miss Austen, that I did not." ...

I frowned in perplexity. "From the frank disclosures of your narrative, I am convinced you were sent here -- not solely by your father, but by the Admiralty. You were told to search The Vyne for a bolt-hole. What, then, is the object of your intrigues?"
Raphael West's response to Jane Austen begins a steady cascade of motives, to add to the means and opportunities she's analyzing. If her tiresome brother would just stop trying to clip her wings ... if society allowed her to wield her quick intelligence without female harness ... if her thoughts and creative work in her fiction could be applied to the situation at hand ...

In Barron's skilled storytelling, there's a way for all those possibilities to come to fruition, provided that Jane can protect herself and her family members, and of course her host, from further murders. And with a plot that dances briskly over the twelve days of traditional English celebration at year's end, both official and pagan, and a lively pace, this turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable romp of a mystery. I'm so glad I moved past my own initial reluctance, and discovered this author's strengths.

Of course, now I've got to go find some of Stephanie Barron's other mysteries! Who would have guessed a CIA analyst could turn English history into such a delightful adventure?!

Release Day: THE FINAL SILENCE, Belfast Very Very Noir, from Stuart Neville

The fifth book in Stuart Neville's Belfast, Northern Ireland, series reached publication today. That's a very good thing. THE FINAL SILENCE continues the harsh, difficult saga of (now former) police inspector Jack Lennon, as he fights for a medical pension, for a chance to raise his own daughter, and for his self-respect.

But all his battles happen on the killing ground of murderers and perverts, and this one opens in the home of a recently dead man, Raymond Drew. His niece Rea Carlyle -- herself the daughter of an up-and-coming politician, Graham Carlyle, who's so close to what he wants that he can't afford to let anyone stand in the way -- sees her own chances improving when her parents offer to give her the newly vacant house where Raymond lived in solitude for so many years. It's easy enough to clear out the few impersonal items her uncle lived with. But a locked door to one more room commands Rea's attention, and when, solo, she manages to pry the door open, the journal of perversion and murder that she discovers turns loose the forces of darkness around her.

A recent roundup of "Nordic noir" by New York Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio pointed out that the crush of dark Scandinavian mysteries and thrillers that recently raced to translation into English (following the path of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) build their power from the force of politics in those wintry nations. It's not just their national entanglements with Germany during the two "World Wars" that pounds through these books, but also mass murders, ethnic prejudice, torn social fabric in the transformation of rural peoples into crowded urban lifestyles. (I recommend it: here.)

Similarly, Neville's Belfast series has taken the pain and horror of Northern Ireland's history and used it to construct malicious gangsters, potent sociopaths, family networks of poisonous loyalties. Through Inspector Jack Lennon and his intermittently psychic daughter Ellen, and a few other "sensitive" if dangerous acquaintances, Neville has poured the horrors of the Irish past into both killers and hauntings. He's made it clear that the ghosts that threaten us are the guilty crimes of our pasts -- and he's done it with adept storytelling.

Now, in THE FINAL SILENCE, Neville lets the force of history slip backstage as he focuses on Jack Lennon and the crushed and disgraced career that Jack's dragging behind him like a deadened limb. Somewhere in the discovered journal and the devastated family that's linked to it, Jack Lennon sees the "one more crime" that demands his skills, whether or not he's officially on the case. But how successful can a man be whose life is such a train wreck? One of the few retired officers who still believes in Jack Lennon is his old colleague Chief Inspector Uprichard -- but even he turns blunt with Jack, despite sharing a shard of personal loss with him. What does it matter if such a sorry wreck as Jack Lennon says he's sorry for Uprichard?
"I don't need your pity," Uprichard said. "I just need you to understand that I won't help you if you won't help yourself. You've been digging yourself into this hole for how long now? When are you going to reach the bottom? You've all but lost your career. Your daughter's gone. You've got a cop after you for murder. How much worse does it have to get for you, Jack, before you stop digging?"
And yet with all that -- and all the blood and threat around Jack -- there is, as it has been before in Neville's work, a question of the dogged human capacity for loyalty and love that might, just might, put an end to a series of deaths.

But really -- what will it take for Jack Lennon to give up self-medicating and forge a new partnership with a real investigator? And what else does he have to lose?

Neville's pace and relentless pressure on his characters create a book that can't be put down (at least, if you're willing to read your way into such darkness to start with). A police manhunt by broken people who can't help fighting for justice ... yes, that's well worth reading, in this latest Belfast neo-noir. And no, you won't need to read the other four first. But each of them is different, and powerful, and I recommend them all. From Soho Crime, once again.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Best Yet from Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad: THE SECRET PLACE

Readers and writers alike know about the state called "flow" (named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi): when you're doing something that's so "right" for you that you lose track of time. It's the ultimate reward for people who become really good at what they love.

My guess from reading the newest Tana French "Dublin Murder Squad" crime novel is that French goes beyond "flow" to "glow" -- that red-hot powerful form of writing that speaks powerful truths inside a compelling story.

But I wasn't ready for THE SECRET PLACE in any sense. First of all, I'm already accustomed to French's established pattern of moving from one investigator to another in her Dublin Murder Squad as she moves to each new novel. And her previous titles have often delved into the depression and sense of guilt that police work can bring, along with the pervasive disorder of Irish life that lingers from the long war years of "the Troubles."

This time, though, she's alternating two points of view as she works this double narrative toward a climax of revelation at a girls' boarding school in Dublin, Ireland. One strand is a braid of experiences of two foursomes of girls in the school -- more or less, a nice group of long-time loyal friends, and a truly nasty group led by a near-psychotic manipulator who loves punishing others. Best of the nice group is Holly Mackey, a teen already known to Cold Case detective Stephen Moran -- she'd been a witness when a small child, and he'd helped her to testify and provided some support for her recovery back then. Now he's stuck in Cold Cases, unable to enter the highly desirable Murder Squad, thanks to a twist from that earlier case. And Holly's at his desk, carrying evidence related to a year-old death discovered at the girls' school. Could it be his chance to work with Murder after all?

Almost immediately, Moran realizes he's in a bad bind: The detective on the death of wealthy Chris Harper, a boy from another boarding school, is a woman, Antoinette Conway, tough and acerbic and not willing to give Moran much room to enter the tiny fragment of the squad that she's claimed for her own -- in the face of a group of Murder detectives who despise her and effectively wall her out of the team where she's supposed to work.

Let me add right away that the title, THE SECRET PLACE, is itself an example of the twists within this case. It's not a place that's hidden -- it's a message board in plain sight at Holly's boarding school, where the girls are welcome to post anonymous messages ... that is, to air their secrets, whether of fact or emotion or, inevitably, of fictional troublemaking. And to which of these does the evidence belong that Holly's brought to Moran?

Rich with insight into the barriers and markers of class, as well as the painful frictions of women officers in rough packs of men, and the longings and misunderstandings of teenaged girls (hint: think Salem Witch Trials, as well as Jennifer McMahon), THE SECRET PLACE is tight, compelling, and boldly twisted to prevent guessing ahead at the actual criminal and motive, any further than Moran and Conway can see. And that's not far ahead at all, as the head of school does her best to wall them out, the girls manipulate and mislead, and danger scents the very air of what should have been a safe retreat for students.

I'm shelving my Tana French books with those by Stuart Neville, Åsa Larsson, Vidar Sundstøl, Mary Kubica, and the best of Louise Penny and John Le Carré and Charles McCarry -- authors who know where they want to take us, and will invent whatever framework is necessary to pull us, heart and soul, into the pressing story that they need to tell.

Caitlin Strong Rides Tough in STRONG DARKNESS (Jon Land)

The sixth in the Caitlin Strong thriller series from Jon Land came out two weeks ago, and it's a fast ride through both the Texas Rangers in action in 1883, and today's tech-centered espionage and infiltration in American communication. STRONG DARKNESS pits Caitlin in the present against a Chinese businessman with a major chip on his shoulder, and her team -- her beloved Cort Wesley Masters, her massive and forceful protector Guillermo Paz, and her boss, D.W. Tepper -- has so much to handle in this one that the final assault on crime has to come from Caitlin herself. Good!

If you're new to the Strong series, here's some quick background: Jon Land writes these as combinations of 19th-century real Texas Rangers history, and a narrative "now" in which Strong, carrying on her family's Ranger tradition, wrestles for full participation in a policing group that's enduringly skeptical of whether women can meet the demands of the job. Caitlin's boss, D.W. Tepper, know she can press through dangers that beset any Texas Ranger; he even knows a lot of her family's escapades and successes, and from time to time he allows her more of the information that she craves.

But Caitlin's created some powerful messes, even across state lines, as she's rarely tactful and always willing to shoot when necessary. Most recently (see Strong Rain Falling), she killed a team of murderers in Providence, Rhode Island, where Cort Wesley's son Dylan is currently in the hospital in a medically induced coma, following a massive concussion. Somehow her behavior in the recent past has the Providence investigators skeptical about allowing her back into the state, for Dylan's sake.

Quickly, Land unfolds double trouble among Chinese nationals in the United States -- those who were kidnapped and forced into slavery on the transcontinental railroads in the 1800s, and those today using high-tech espionage and invention-related piracy. While the tale of Texas Ranger William Ray Strong makes up an alternating narrative thread, young Dylan appears captivated by a high-end Chinese sex-film star who needs his help, Caitlin's trying to counter threats in both Texas and New England, and her boss might as well resign himself to more political spill-back from Caitlin's brash approach to seeking justice:
Tepper dropped the recorder into the drawer and leaned back in his chair, the springs creaking as it tilted toward the open office window. "You know how many times your daddy and granddaddy got their names in the paper?"

"No, I don't."

"Neither do I, Ranger, because it wasn't often enough for anybody to pay attention. If it's their tradition you're trying to love up to, you've got an awful peculiar way of doing it."

"Old Earl rode with you back when dinosaurs roamed the prairie, and I don't believe Jim ever owned a cell phone. It's the age that's different, D.W., not me."

"No, Caitlin," Tepper corrected, "it's both."
This one's especially of interest for me because I'm passionate about the shameful episode of U.S. history that resulted in the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (see my website and related Pinterest board). But it's also a must because it's a classic Caitlin Strong thriller, half Western, half current crises, and all action with a hefty dash of friendship and loyalty. This Jon Land series stays on my list of "must read the newest book, and let's go back and re-read the others." And don't mess with Texas, right?

Well-Told Historical Mystery: MURDER AT MARBLE HOUSE, Alyssa Maxwell

A well-written historical mystery tilts the world and gives us a look at ourselves from a distance, with fresh insight and often delight -- and that's exactly what MURDER AT MARBLE HOUSE provides. The second in Alyssa Maxwell's "Gilded Newport" series, it opens in August 1895 in the upscale resort of Newport, Rhode Island, where the powerful East Coast families of the day enjoyed a life comparable to royalty: grand mansions, flocks of servants, elegant gatherings. Maxwell's cleverly created amateur sleuth, Emma Cross, is a less fortunate member of the wealthy Vanderbilts, but her entrée into their gilded society is still the sort that comes from being "born" into social power. Maxwell positions Emma for her sleuthing by giving her a less-than-simple career as a society-page reporter for the city news -- so that Emma must balance her nose for news against her compassion for her relatives and the people she's grown up with. Good!

MURDER AT MARBLE HOUSE opens with Emma saying a fierce farewell to her most recent love interest, whose shady and deceptive side is now clear to her -- and being invited (or commanded) at the same time by her "aunt" Alva Vanderbilt to persuade a young cousin, Consuelo, to accept an arranged marriage to an English peer. Consuelo, her heart already attached elsewhere, wants nothing to do with the plan. As Emma reluctantly tackles this assignment (which she understands well from both sides), Aunt Alva recruits a performing fortune teller/medium as another way to assure Consuelo of a happy future ahead. But unfortunately the medium is sometimes caught up in what appears to be "real" prediction, including warning Consuelo of possible disaster. And in short order, the medium is murdered and Consuelo vanishes. Emma Cross's investigative skills and discretion are instantly essential!

I enjoyed particularly Emma's careful working relationship with her friends on the police force, like Detective Jesse Whyte, who arrives on scene well aware of the clout of the Vanderbilts:
... the expression on Detective Jesse Whyte's face make my stomach sink. ... The moment our gazes met, his ironic expression proclaimed he'd not only realized I was once again caught up in a murder investigation, but that he wasn't the least happy about it. ... Jesse's first words to me dismissed any doubt I might have had about his sentiments. "Really, Emma? So soon after last time? Is this something you particularly enjoy?"
An essential of a well-told amateur sleuth mystery is a compelling reason for the protagonist to dabble in such risky business. Emma's motive comes from her attachments to both sides of the "Gilded Newport" society: old friends from school who work in blue-collar jobs, whether as police or maids to the wealthy, and relatives who exert control over the money and power in the town. It's a good strategy, and Maxwell's clever plot twists interact smoothly with Emma's conflicts of personal interest. (A hint of romance now and then sweetens the mix, too!)

Pick this one up for a nice traditional read from Kensington, which keeps expanding its list of enjoyable mysteries. There's a wealth of insight into the social structure of the women in particular in this era and situation, as well as plenty of romping through risk, some danger, and much puzzling out of what could have led to murder. Don't look for fully authentic-to-the-time dialogue, though, as Maxwell's pace soon trims away the frills in order to move her personable and smart sleuth into the investigation.

I'll look for Maxwell's earlier book in the series, Murder at the Breakers, and will also look forward to the sequels in the series!