Sunday, April 13, 2014

Diversion: Poetry by David Kirby, A WILDERNESS OF MONKEYS

It's National Poetry Month, and one of my theories is that a good poem can lift an author past any tedious touch of "writer's block" to a fresh outlook. Even for mysteries.

Floridian David Kirby makes this very clear in his new book via Hanging Loose Press, A WILDERNESS OF MONKEYS. In long-lined swinging stanzas the narrative almost scoots past the presence of meter and line -- and then, swinging back the other way, Kirby's merriment restores the form and its rhythm, with a gurgle of delight.

I'll just give a quick sample from the poem "Fat Dope Dealers," third stanza down (in between two segments about Jefferson Davis, leader of the South in the Civil War!):
What makes dope dealers so fat? I know, it's because they
    can make thousands of dollars each week by making a few
phone calls rather than hundreds delivering stuff and throwing
       their backs out or mowing people's lawns only to have
them say "you missed a patch over there" and not tip you.
Think it's easy to pull this off for almost 90 pages? It's not easy at all. But it's wonderful, and funny, and fun, and thoughtful. I'm so glad this book arrived in the mail. It was a great surprise. And it's available now.

Vermont Goes Stylish: New Design Treasure Trove from Joanne Palmisano

Vermont's a funny place. You can see the most amazing creations made from barn board or blue and green Mason jars or sprays of pussywillows dominating a room or a landscape. But you can't necessarily get the TV stations that show the "DIY Network" -- you have to DIY, that is, Do It Yourself, yourself.

Which makes it a little bit wild and wonderful that Joanne Palmisano's new book, SALVAGE SECRETS DESIGN AND DECOR, found its way here to Vermont for a review. Crammed with tips like the importance of the depth of a salvaged sink, or how to refinish metal cabinets -- "Easy! Take it to your local car refinisher, and have them sandblast it and repaint it. Unique and ready to go -- just pull up a truck" -- Palmisano sets this cheerful "make it into something fresh" attitude into style that fits as well in an urban upscale home as it does in a chic country cottage. A star of the television DIY network, she's less well known here among the Green Mountains, where her roots are. And she deserves a lot more local attention.

This sleek and colorful book packs 302 pages (you'd never guess it from the comfortable feel in your hand) with finished projects, inspiration, and highly personal adaptations. I'm especially impressed with the bathrooms Palmisano shows, which are true sanctuaries (one is even decorated with old church crosses). But the kitchens and dining areas are wonderful meetingplaces, and the bedrooms are cozy and funky. I did wonder how the lovely golden lighting in so many of these set pieces will adapt to the push into compact fluorescent lighting. If I ever meet this Vermonter-turned-national phenom of reclaiming and recycling, I'll hope for a long conversation on the topic.

Meanwhile, I plan to re-read and re-gaze at least a few more times; Susan Teare's photos are crisp, large, and lush, and Palmisano's friendly and down-to-earth approach to savoring design and decor makes for great reading.

Oh no, this isn't a mystery book -- I'm sure you caught that! -- but even though I told the very nice publisher's rep not to send a review copy because it wouldn't fit with our mysteries focus, one arrived in the mailbox a week later. And you know how it is in Vermont ... we hate to waste things. Palmisano captures that philosophy with exuberance and skill (and a great "Resources" section); what a shame it would be if I didn't put her new book to use right here!

Available in May, and by pre-order now, through independent bookstores and online. Here's Palmisano's website: http://joannepalmisano.com. Have fun visiting, and I hope you'll pick up a copy of her book, as well as tuning in (if your TV can reach it) to her DIY shows and her designs on This Old House. In a couple of years, I might wear out my copy of the book, and if I do, I'll create a project to showcase it. Yes, it's worth holding onto this one, reclaiming it with fresh eyes and appreciation every season.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Brief Mention: THE CAIRO AFFAIR, Olen Steinhauer

At this point, Olen Steinhauer's books are getting enormous press. For me, it's the kind of situation I enjoy a lot -- years ago I discovered his "Tourist" espionage series, went wild about it, and wrote about the books often. (Like, here.) And now "everybody" knows that the next Steinhauer, and the next, will be such excellent reading that it's worth getting each title. (Nope, I'm not saying they all heard about Steinhauer from me ... just that it's exciting to spot a top-flight author on the way up.)

But just in case you DON'T yet have some of these books on your shelf: THE CAIRO AFFAIR is an excellent place to start. Like Charles McCarry's excellent (and sometimes little known) espionage title The Secret Lovers, this title is meant to read two ways. It's first a political snafu in Cairo, Egypt, and Steinhauer's lively and quick-paced novel takes us into the heart of the Arab Spring: Libyan terrorists, religious conflicts, power struggles. Why should any of it be connected to the sudden shooting, in public, of Sophie Kohl's American diplomat husband in Hungary?

Well, our sins have long roots. And chopping off the stems doesn't stop the roots from traveling onward and sending up more shoots, right? Sophie's just been confronted by her husband Emmett and, with little fuss, admitted to an affair in their last posting, in Egypt. (Second meaning of the title.) She sees no direct connection to the murder that's just happened in front of her, but then again, she's got to start somewhere, responding to what's happened.
She wasn't going to do anything that she'd done before in her life. Emmett had been too good and too strong, and she would try to at least be something better than she had been.

She returned to bed and picked up her cell phone, again turning it on. It was three thirty in the morning, and there were twenty-eight missed calls. Mother, father, friends, unknown numbers, and, twice, Stan Bertolli. Dependable Stan. She pressed the green button to call her old lover in Cairo.
Steinhauer packs in some stunning twists, as well as suspense and enough different views of the roles of the United States in northern Africa that the Arab Spring takes on fresh aspects and layered depth. The book spins to a highly satisfying conclusion. Of course, I ended up with many more questions about the state of the world, lingering, sticking with me, and then pushing me to the Sunday newspaper with fresh eyes and rekindled curiosity.

Thanks, Olen Steinhauer.

New YA Mystery, Worth Reading: ASK ME by Kimberly Pauley

Kimberly Pauley shouldn't need much reassurance -- her track record (mostly for teens) already shines and sings. But her author website (http://www.kimberlypauley.com) has the feel of someone still hesitant to trust the fates.

She should probably just relax and enjoy what she's earned. ASK ME is a tight, intriguing, and totally teen-ready mystery with just the right amount of paranormal and a balanced blend of not belonging and suddenly finding a first boyfriend. Or two.

Right from the start, it's clear Aria has a "gift." Her grandparents, who gave up their comfy retirement home in order to find a more rural place to raise her after her mom deserted her, know she has this "prophecy" ability. It's no surprise: So did her grandmother when she was a girl (in that case, the gift ended at puberty, though). And Aria's grandfather is still hopeful that this newest truth-speaker in the family will find a way to persuade the unruly prophetic streak to come up with something to help the household finances ... say, the winning animal at the races.

But prophecy, for this line of "Sibyls," isn't one of those things you get to just push the button on. And in Aria's case, things are dire. Because any time someone asks a question, no matter what, she has to answer it. So she's learned to wear headphones and listen to music to keep from hearing others, and when she does hear their questions -- and people ask a stunning amount of questions every day -- she tries to mumble the answers. Being compelled to reveal truthful answers has already brought her way too much trouble (like, answering where a straying husband is, or what a boy sees in another girl, ouch!) As Aria comments about her lack of friends at school, "Who wants a friend who only speaks the truth?"

So it's a complete and surprising accident when one of the most popular girls in school asks a question that Aria can't help answering, a reply to Jade's despair: "Some things can only be confided to the earth." Not that Aria knows what that's supposed to mean (prophecies are often metaphorical or weird). But Jade seems to get it, and for a moment, school isn't such a desperate place.

Until Jade is found missing, then dead, and Aria -- of course -- can't help replying if people ask her about the death. Soon the police and then Jade's two boyfriends are after Aria, and at least one of them may have a dangerous motive for calling her and inviting her into something she barely grasps.

Go ahead, buy a copy for the "young adult" in your life. (It's from Soho Teen, sibling to Soho Crime.) Just make sure you have enough time to read it yourself, before you give it away.


Sunday, April 06, 2014

Denise Mina, THE RED ROAD: Alex Morrow #4, Gritty and Deep

A murder from 1997 -- solved but not really cleared away -- is going to dog Detective Inspector Alex Morrow's current effort to keep a mobbed-up murderer jailed in Glasgow. But she doesn't know it yet, as RED ROADS opens with her court testimony and an unlikely stirring of friendship with Anton Atholl, defense attorney for the notorious Michael Brown. In fact, it's Alex who's sweating and nervous in court this time, but she pulls herself together and does a competent job of testimony.

Back at her boss's office, a shocking discovery threatens to completely derail the case, though. The incarcerated defendant's fingerprints have just been identified -- at a current crime scene. Word of this could do much more than let Michael Brown off his current charges; it could derail all the past convictions related to him, as well as to the prints lab.

Mina ramps up the tension and emotion by exposing the reader, in chapters sandwiched between Alex's experience, to what took place when a 16-year-old sexually abused girl went to prison back in 1997 for a knifing murder -- on the same night that another such murder took place. It will be a long reach within the book's tense timeline until DI Alex Morrow realizes that there are people from the old case, tangentially involved with the new one.

This is the fourth Alex Morrow investigation (although it appears the publisher has "issues" around title number three and isn't mentioning it; go to the author website for the full listing, http://www.denisemina.com/writing). If you're already hooked on Mina's Glasgow noir, this one may be a hair gentler in terms of gore than others -- but emotionally it packs multiple punches and captures the double-binds of poverty and deprivation that feed back into cruelty. And if you haven't yet sampled Mina's other titles (which also include other investigators), this is actually a really good place to start, rich with imagery and layers of connection. I was sorry to turn the last page.

Pets, Cooking, and Murder: Liz Mugavero, A BISCUIT, A CASKET

Agatha Christie was right -- small-town life is a perfect stage for murder mysteries. And Liz Mugavero, in her second "Pawsitively Organic Mystery," gives us an amateur sleuth who's driven to solve crime when it affects that people she cares about. Kristan "Stan" Connor is curious, ambitious, honest, and will do just about anything for her friends and neighbors in the little Connecticut town of Frog Ledge.

Owner of a relatively new business providing homemade, organic pet foods (often helpful in clearing up allergies and intestinal ailments of the dogs and cats whose owners will try them), Stan's quickly expanding her services in the community. As A BISCUIT, A CASKET opens, Stan's just arriving with the chow for a very cute costumed pet birthday party, to be held at a local dairy farm that's also diversifying. In fact, in addition to the pet party, there's a Halloween-themed tour of the farm's clever "corn maze" to delight adventurous locals and tourists.

But Stan never has a chance to serve her doggie delights that evening, because shrieks and chaos erupt when one of the married owners of the farm is found dead in the maze, a corn-chopping tool thrust into him in skilled and murderous fashion. As the only person in the crowd with experience of what ought to happen at a crime scene (see Mugavero's first in the series, Kneading to Die), Stan takes action to keep the crowd back and dials 911. The major drawback to that action the the local police investigator already knows Stan and isn't too impressed with this recent resident of the town -- "Stan pulled her phone out of her pocket. Noticed her hand was shaking. Great. Another call to Trooper Pasquale about a dead body."

Stan's determination to be a good neighbor leads her to agree to help the newly widowed farm owner to look into why Hal Hoffman's been killed and who's done it. Good thing she has a newly hired baking assistant for her pet treats already ordered, but there's still a lot she has to handle on her own. And with the abrupt arrival of her not-very-happy mother to pay a visit, a potential boyfriend who keeps running into her during the wrong moments, and possible underworld connections to the murdered farmer, the pressure never lets up.

There are plenty of bouncing dogs and well-grooomed cats in here, as well as cows (and their manure) -- but most of all the book draws its charm from Mugavero's well-created sleuth, who's smart enough to ask the right questions, again and again, until the answers start to line up. I enjoyed all the twists, and just enough scary moments to keep the plot lively without too much gore. This is a delightful "amateur sleuth" traditional mystery, crafted by an author who understands the classic mystery apparatus, and deftly weaves it into a small town that Dame Agatha would have enjoyed very much, I'm sure! Hurrah for Stan Connor and this growing series. Sign me up for the next book!

Monday, March 31, 2014

"Pet Noir" Has Claws and Teeth!: PANTHERS PLAY FOR KEEPS, Clea Simon

Of the three mystery series that Clea Simon pens, my fave is the Pru Marlowe titles. Pru is an animal behaviorist and amateur sleuth with an uncomfortable ability that landed on her in the midst of dealing with a crime, a couple of titles ago: She can "hear" animals' comments in her mind. I know, it's a stretch -- yet Simon's tight plotting and the very believable conflicts that Pru gets into make it worth buying into the notion, and soon enough in the reading, it's just part of Pru's character. Which, I have to say, is that of someone I'd be honored to be friends with.

The trouble is, Pru's closest friend at this point is her sardonic cat Wallis, who rarely gives her a straight answer to anything (but clearly is a friend in spite of that). And her love interest, Detective Jim Creighton, apparently has finally taken no for an answer and is cuddling with a human shrink instead. That's especially a drawback because it reduces the chances that Creighton will support Pru as, once again, her animal-oriented career leads to discovery of a murder.

This time she's in the Berkshire (Mass.) woods, training a service dog, when the animal's reliable nose drags her to a corpse. And it's someone Pru has met: an immigrant working at the home where the service dog is destined to live, with a wealthy man who is going blind. As usual, she's way too connected to this crime. Too bad "her" detective isn't hers now.

Simon provides multiple motives and complications, and if PANTHERS PLAY FOR KEEPS isn't exactly the whisky-soaked, gun-toting, despairing sort of mystery that the term "noir" suggests, it's fast-moving, tough-minded, and full of cynical comments and questions that make total sense for a woman who has to hide her inner talent from even her closest human friends, for fear she'll get labeled insane and locked up, instead of the criminals.

Readers of the series will recognize -- and newcomers enjoy meeting -- the tough little dog whose nasty owner calls him Bitsy but who has let Pru, who exercises him, know he's actually Growler, a gruff and angry fellow who nevertheless knows all the animal gossip in the region, as well as a lot of people stuff. He advises Pru:
"We all have our leashes and collars." I nodded in silent agreement. "What you've got to ask yourself is how much would be too much. And how far ... " He was panting. "How far could jealousy push you?"

Whether Pru's love life or the crime is the point, how far has jealousy pushed the murderer? And what's with the totally unreliable evidence indicating a panther being involved in the killing? Panthers don't live in Massachusetts -- do they?

Simon plies her twin threads of investigation and the crises and tensions of an independent (but wants to be loved!) career woman, adds a generous dash of black humor, and provides a lively mystery with enjoyable pace and twists. I bought into all of it -- and the presence of an outrageously public bobcat in our neighborhood this past winter makes PANTHERS PLAY FOR KEEPS even more memorable!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Constable Molly Smith Series: UNDER COLD STONE, Vicki Delany

Forget Italy, France, South Africa. Pick up a Vicki Delany mystery and rediscover what you might think was an ordinary sort of place: Canada. But in Delany's deft storytelling, this ever-wild nation comes alive in its particular places. Her much-loved Constable Molly Smith series is based in Trafalgar, British Columbia -- but in this seventh title, Smith and her mom Lucky (who is paired up with Smith's boss, an unlikely couple if ever there was one) dig into crime and crime-solving in the remarkable town of Banff, Alberta.

I have to confess, the official Banff/Lake Louise (Alberta) website has won my heart with such daring assertions as "They say Mother Nature loves all her children equally, but we're pretty sure we're her favorite." And then there's "You'll find relaxing can be wonderfully exhausting." That one might well apply to Lucky Smith, making her best effort to accept pampering at the "Banff Springs" luxury resort. Like the real luxury lodging in this prime resort (founded in 1885!), it's luxe, pricey, and an ideal location for her to savor a week away from her environmental activism lifestyle, with her partner, Chief Constable (of Trafalgar -- a mountain range distant) Paul Keller. While she's making the most of spa treatment and fine cuisine, her daughter -- a constable -- is trying to figure out how Mom made all those Canadian Thanksgiving dishes.

Yes, it's October, "shoulder season" for the resort, since the famous snow-pack isn't yet in place. That means the resort is almost affordable for Lucky and Paul. It also means there's a heavy dose of seasonal unemployment around the resort, as the ski trade isn't yet hiring.

Suddenly that's an issue in Lucky's lap, when she finds herself threatened in public by an out-of-work ski instructor, for the second time in two days. Except this time Paul is nearby, and in one of those coincidences that happen in real life even more often than in fiction, the scruffy menacing ski bum turns out to be Paul Keller's estranged ne'er-do-well son Matt. Not exactly a warm sense of family reunion, is it? Still, Lucky's willing to let father reconnect with son -- it just doesn't seem to be in the cards, though.

Until the wee hours of the next morning when Paul gets a phone call that ejects him from bed, while Lucky feels that familiar echo of panic for her constable daughter -- who isn't the one in trouble just now.
"Paul, please, tell me."

"That was Matthew. His roommate's dead."

"Why? How?"

"Matt says he got home, found the fellow dead."

"How awful." Lucky thrust her arms through her sweater.

"I'm going over there. You don't need to come." ...

Lucky looked Paul in the eye. "Then all the more reason for me to come. You're not going because you're a police officer. You're going because you're his father. You need me, Paul, even if your son doesn't."
When they arrive at the scene of what's clearly a murder, though, Matt has fled and is soon the main suspect for the crime. Under the circumstances, his dad isn't able to run the investigation, of course -- and Lucky's sensible first call is to summon her daughter, Constable Molly Smith.

So Delany sets up a fast-paced and complex interaction among three couples -- the missing Matt and his "white trash" diner-worker girlfriend, Lucky and Paul, and Paul's soon-arriving ex-wife and her wealthy new lover -- plus Molly herself, barely allowed to interact in her own Constable role.

Swiftly, the force of the plot lands among the women on hand: Molly, Lucky, ex-wife and Matt's mom Karen, and poignantly, the confused but devoted waitress Tracey, who's willing to help Matt at any cost, whether the murder is his fault or not. Add in a criminal network in town, and the uneasy alliance of investigators and victims, and the pace continues to accelerate, with threats coming from both likely and surprising quarters.

Although Constable Molly Smith's role is one of a handful of points of view here, Delany proves that it's both Smith''s insight and her willingness to push the boundaries of the investigation that ultimately lead toward the truth -- no matter how hard it may be to handle.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Well Worth Reading: THE BONES OF PARIS, Laurie R. King

Laurie R. King's latest book came out in 2013 (she has another coming out this May, though -- author website here); it's THE BONES OF PARIS and I didn't rush to read it, knowing that her many fans would carry the book along, and at her level of the mysteries field, there are only a few publications whose word really matters in terms of how readers rush to purchase copies.

But I enjoy both strands of King's work -- her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, and her California police procedurals. So I made sure that my winter reading did include this one ... and it  belongs to neither of those series, but instead is a sequel to Touchstone, which I fear I somehow missed reading (I'll catch up with it soon).

THE BONES OF PARIS fits into the era King's explored from so many directions in her Russell/Holmes books, thought, as it opens in the fall of 1929 with a missive that reaches Bennett Grey in England. Readers of the earlier book will know immediately why the letter and enclosed photos have been sent to Grey -- the rest of us will catch up slowly, as we begin to understand the strange catastrophes and losses that tie together the man in England and a missing-persons investigator, Harris Stuyvesant, whom we meet in the next chapter in the heat of Paris's end-of-summer season, struggling with consequences of his ratty lifestyle and emotional sloppiness, while also trying to earn a living among the "beautiful people" of the expatriate community in Europe. A lot of what's wrong for him, and what goes wrong as he investigates, can easily be blamed on his own choices.

Yet a lot of the twisted nature of the arts community he finds himself investigating is a consequence of two very large factors: the damage done in France by the Great War, and the rebellious efforts of artists at the time to shake up reality, confront death and disaster, refuse to settle for comfort or attachment. The Surrealists make up the characters as well as the setting for King's exploration and Stuyvesant's investigation. King's interweaving of art and despair, loyalty and fractured love, make this "crime novel" simultaneously a deep and layered novel of that extended hold-your-breath season between the two major European wars. And she is generous with hints of the oncoming hostilities, even as her characters insist on heavy drinking and partying in their slice of "peace."

If you've been reading Charles Todd, or Jacqueline Winspear, or Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy, pick up THE BONES OF PARIS. It may also be a good fit for you if you're an Alan Furst fan. And if you stop now and then to think about madness and art, about how new ideas emerge from darkness, about how evil overtakes good and how death fascinates, and how poets become murderers ... Don't come for tea, please. But all of this is in King's crime novel, and it's a darned good read.

Diversion: Poets Discussed with Insight and Barbed Tongue

Tuesday April 1, in addition to being a guaranteed "weather" day here in Vermont (we have SO many "April Fools" snowstorms and rain items and more), is the start of National Poetry Month. I promise not to overdo this, but a little poetry is good for the soul and I think can enrich the life and words of mystery writers ... maybe even a few readers.

At any rate, if there were suddenly a murder case in the poetry world to solve, it could well involve Peter Stitt, whose collection of critical essays in THE PERFECT LIFE emerged last fall in a solid little book (166 pages) from Tupelo Press. I think I've read the first essay three times now -- called "In Love Begins Responsibility," it starts with poet James Wright and Professor Stitt (who is the founding and ongoing editor of The Gettyburg Review), moves on to John Berryman, and provides the ground for Stitt to talk about what it means for him to be a survivor of his own (long-ago) suicidal longing. The images and ideas are so strong that -- truly -- I used them a few days ago in a set of high school presentations. Know how highly the praise is, when a work of literary criticism engages a 16-year-old, or several peers of said teen? Yes, the essay is that good.

But there's more to come in this startling packet of tight and intriguing critiques. Whether it's disclosing the (probably immoral) editorial "making pretty" done to Emily Dickinson's poems, the similar messing around with Robert Frost's lines, or the justification -- or not! -- for fictionalizing fact and playing with dialogue instead of reporting it, Stitt keeps piling up edgy insights, remarks, and questions. I would love to have been a student in his classrooms -- and would also hate it, because you can't tell, at least from his printed pages, which parts are his opinions, which are meant as barbed dinner-table conversation, and which are "truths" that could be kept and nurtured.

As I read and re-read, I felt as though I was part of the table gathering on one of those edgy late-night shows, scrambling for something possibly witty to add to the discussion ... and although that's not necessarily comfy, it's exhilarating, exciting, and memorable. If you've wondered how to convince someone that poetry and poets are far from boring, giving them a copy of THE PERFECT LIFE would be a great start.

And it sets up a wry, delightful way to enter National Poetry Month: skeptical, eager, and hungry for more. And oh yes, suspicious that some literary bloodletting might follow!

Ghana Crime Fiction: Kwei Quartey Succeeds with Third Darko Dawson Investigation

Spring is emphatically arriving on the East Coast, even here in Vermont, where the snowpack is melting noisily, water pouring downhill, birds calling, deer tentatively coming out of the woods to see what plant life around the house and shop might sustain them a bit longer. We have Weather in wild variety and landscape that's "American classic" -- mountains, rivers, fields.

So it's a powerful contrast to step into MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS, the newest Darko Dawson investigation from Kwei Quartey, and migrate to the oceanfront, the hot sand-swept cities, the land of tribal tradition, omens, and malicious magic.

Detective Inspector Darko Dawson isn't quite ready for what he's suddenly responsible for solving: the murder of a wealthy married couple of significance, a case that's lingered for months without solution and that "belongs" to the police in Takoradi, on the coast. Dawson is part of a federal police force headquartered in Ghana's capital city, Accra -- and his boss says firmly that with the socially important family member of the victims, requesting federal intervention on the case, Dawson must leave immediately to tackle the cold case.

Few situations could show so quickly how little choice Dawson has: His young son Hosiah's cardiac surgery is barely a day into recovery, and Dawson and his family expect him on hand. But there is no way to decline the case without losing his job, and soon Dawson's on a State Transport bus to Takoradi, where -- without travel stipend or other support --  he's persuaded a relative to let him stay in an unfinished building. It's basic but workable; still, when his superintendent sends along an assistant (who happens to be the superintendent's nephew), the plush hotel lodgings that the assistant investigator receives throw into further perspective Dawson's perilous position. He's got to solve this case to maintain his own forward progress.

But what a case! Is there traditional magic involved? And is there significance to the location of the victims' bodies, in a canoe near an oil rig? Dawson juggles the facts as they emerge -- and for some of them, he has to handle the region's ladder of prestige and power, just to get the details:
His mind flitted over the events of the past two days like an undecided humming bird. Instinctively, he felt that the Smith-Aidoo murder had greater breadth and depth than any of his previous cases. Two corpses in a canoe adrift around a deep-sea oil rig, a severed head with an excavated eye socket, a nineteenth-century pocket watch with a scrawled inscription invoking blood ties. What did it all mean?
Kwei Quartey left Ghana after spending time in jail there for political protest, and became an American physician, still in practice in Southern California (more info here). Returning to visit Ghana as a prosperous adult, in 2008, he resumed connections with the west African nation. This is his third book featuring Detective Inspector Dawson -- the others are Wife of the Gods and Children of the Street. Reading MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS without the other two isn't a problem, as Quartey deftly brushes in the needed details ... but his protagonist is such a thoughtful and hard-working investigator that I think many readers will want to fill in the rest of the series for themselves. I'm not likely to have a chance to see Ghana in person, so I particularly appreciate being able to travel there in this way, through the eyes of an author who experiences multiple cultures, and a police officer who has reason to challenge his environment. I'm looking forward to more.

Crime Family Morality: Naples Crime Fiction from Jan Merete Weiss

When Jan Merete Weiss's debut crime novel, THESE DARK THINGS, emerged in 2011, it opened up a remarkable new area for Italian mystery, beyond the tender Venetian investigations of Donna Leon and Magdelen Nabb's classic Florentine series. Not only does Weiss's Captain Natalia Monte of the Carabiniere need to wrestle daily with the anti-women attitudes around her, inside her workplace and out on the street. But she also must find her way in an astoundingly immoral city, a location where the crime families of the Camorra control almost everything.

And in the remarkable second in Weiss's series, A FEW DROPS OF BLOOD, Natalia discovers the adult perspective on why the Camorra has risen to this strength, and why Naples accepts it: The deprivations of World War II and the long-lasting poverty of the region caused its people to embrace the paternal attentions of the wealthy criminals, whose code of morality included supporting widows, making sure churches had enough funds, even providing critical injections of cash for art museums.

Ah, art museums ... this is Natalia's forte. Before she found her way into the Carabiniere, she'd been an art history major, and her first crime-solving efforts dealt with art theft. But a quick mind, good choices, and well-solved cases have taken her much higher, now working with major crimes and regularly confronting murder. As A FEW CROPS OF BLOOD opens, Natalia receives her first female partner on the job, a Sicilian (surely that's a mark of survival, to have entered law enforcement in Sicily?), Carabiniere Angelina Cavatelli. Sure enough, Angelina is ready for investigations that call for probing organized crime and the histories of major families -- and, as Natalia quickly discovers, Angelina's brought on the job move, to her new home, her significant other ... a woman.

Since the first crime the pair tackle is a flashy and "artistically arranged" double murder of a pair of gay men (the bodies are found posed naked on a statue in a Contessa's garden), the new investigator has reason to worry that she's moved to a city where homophobia is even more dangerous than in Sicily. But Captain Natalia Monte -- familiar with the organizations involved, including an art museum -- can see more deeply into the situation.

And the fascination of this book is, Natalia's insight comes from growing up in Naples, with strong woman friends who straddle both sides of the law -- two in particular are so significant in the Camorra that Natalia's arch-enemy within her department scores points by surveilling Natalia and catching her at one of her regular get-togethers with crime wife Lola Nuovaletta and two other childhood friends.

But Weiss swiftly reveals that it's not the espionage within the department that Natalia has to worry about: It's her own divided sense of morality, as her loyalty to the strong, vivid, wonderful women in her life -- as well as an immature boyfriend -- carries her into doubting her ability to choose the "right" thing to do. And although she has a couple of strong mentors, she can't reveal all the details of her situation to either of them. It's going to be her shoulders that carry this weight.

I found the first couple of chapters awkward, but the plot is well twisted and compelling, and Captain Natalia Monte's actions and situations kept me eagerly turning the pages. We've seen (especially in war settings) plenty of crime fiction where men's friendships make the difference in survival of body and soul -- this is a rare new opportunity to women's bonds, both old-style and challenged, and to consider how they're adding richness to the landscape of investigation and values.

Way to go, Jan Merete Weiss!

The book won't be released until April 22, but considering how good this series already has become, I'd suggest pre-ordering a copy. I don't see an easy way to check on Weiss's planned author events, but she teaches in New York City and I'm hoping Soho Crime will boost her onto a tour, so we can all connect with her. I want to know more about this author; and definitely, I want to go explore "her" Naples, Italy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Laura McHugh, THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD: Ozark Mountains Murder Mystery

THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD is a debut novel -- but you'll only know that from the outside of the book, where it says so. Inside it, between the covers, this is expert storytelling from a librarian, software developer, mom, and above all, prime novelist. Laura McHugh's emotionally wrenching suspense gives us two memorable women: Lucy Dane, just finishing high school, and her vanished mother, Lila. Each unfolds her experiences from first-person vantage -- and yet in McHugh's hands, this clarity still hides from us the darkness of some souls nearby. Take your cue from short-term high school art teacher Mr. Gerardi, who returned to Chicago without completing a semester of teaching in the town of Henbane. Obsessed with the many references to the devil in local place names, the teacher even focused on the town itself:  "Henbane. Another name for nightshade -- the devil's weed. He's everywhere. He's all around you."

And indeed, the book opens with a death -- the death of Lucy's once best friend Cheri Stoddard, whose body has just been discovered. Lucy knows she wasn't the kind of BFF she should have been to Cheri. By not standing up for her friend, and not somehow preventing her death, Lucy's already failed her own self-standards.

But she's been handed a stacked deck and doesn't yet know it, as her dad never gave her the reak details of her mother's disappearance. Only as the counternarrative from Lila wraps around her daughters does the town's truly hellish characteristic appear: the power allowed to one twisted man who takes what he wants, including the innocence and freedom of whatever is lovely in this place.

And when Lucy's father warns her that there's evil nearby, he does it far too vaguely:
He stumbled around whatever he was trying to say. "Crete'll be looking out for you ... but you need to use your best judgment. You don't know what kind of folks you might run into up there, and ... you just need to mind your business and do your work and stay out of anything that don't concern you. And if anything makes you uncomfortable, let me know. I can give him some reason you gotta quit."

"What're you talking about?" I asked. I could tell he wasn't joking around, but I couldn't imagine what had him worried. "I'll be renting canoes and selling worms. It's not exactly dangerous."
But that's not true. And the danger is not the job itself, or even "stranger danger" -- it's as close as family and neighbors, and Lucy's father's decision to keep the details to himself leaves it up to Lucy to discover them. As did her mother before her.

Creepy, suspenseful, deeply human, and sustained by strands of loyalty, love, and friendship, the summer in front of Lucy is McHugh's many-layered portrait of a place, a community, a time, and the dangerous edge that some people continue to hone between men and beautiful women. In turn, it's Lucy's task to discover what happened to her mother -- and perhaps to save herself from repeating the same tragedy. But how will she know for sure, if nobody will tell her?

She'll find out. And so does the reader. McHugh sets it up so that every added scrap of the past revealed becomes another reason to follow Lucy, to whatever she can salvage for her life.

Lucy Burdette, MURDER WITH GANACHE, a Key West Food Critic Mystery

Things I loved about reading Lucy Burdette's fourth Key West Food Critic Mystery:

1. The Key West setting (it's snowing here! and I am determined to go visit Burdette's almost mythical location).

2. Newspaper writer, restaurant critic, and recipe tester Hayley Snow, an amateur sleuth who makes decisions that are smart and sometimes inspired -- and has the right kind of stubbornness to sit down with the somewhat out-of-balance kids at the local teen shelter to track a missing girl.

3. Visiting (on the pages) Ernest Hemingway's house and its feline residents -- more than once!

4. Deft handling of politics and persuasion within a local police force. It's not easy to be the amateur sleuth who keeps pushing for more investigations!

5. The recipes. Yes, it's true: the chocolate ganache recipe is in the back (that's cream + chocolate, mmm). But so is the one for the lime cupcakes that Hayley is making as the book opens, for the friend's wedding that's vulnerable to "issues" as crime steps in, and ... Nope, not going to spoil the plot. Get your own copy -- mine's acquiring some chocolate fragrance as I settle in to re-read certain choice pages (smile).

Thanks, "Lucy" -- a.k.a. Roberta Isleib. This was fun!