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!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Intriguing Traditional Mysteries: CAT ON A COLD TIN ROOF (Mike Resnick) and THE BUTTON MAN (Mark Pryor)

I've been taking time off from those complex, thought-provoking global mysteries and thrillers flooding the market, to sink into two really good traditional mysteries that turn entirely different settings and sleuths into well-plotted, well-paced, satisfying books. And when I'd finished both CAT ON A COLD TIN ROOF from Mike Resnick (yes, the same Mike Resnick famous for his science fiction) and THE BUTTON MAN from Mark Pryor (a prequel!), I suddenly realized they were from the same publisher, Seventh Street Books. I think that's a great sign for this mystery-focused imprint of Prometheus Books.

Eli Paxton in CAT ON A COLD TIN ROOF is the kind of detective I hope I might be if I'd gone that route: able to use his network of friends and acquaintances (including the best fences in Cincinnati, Ohio) to probe into the case that he's just landed through a police officer buddy. The police are at a murder scene, and officer Jim Simmons wants Eli right away to look into a side aspect of the scene, a missing cat. Sounds pretty trivial, until Eli soaks up several facts: the cat's owner, now dead, was a hugely wealthy reformed criminal ("organized" crime); the widow, who's hiring him, is throwing cash on the table right away; and, as he soon realizes, this cat was worth a fortune, for a very unusual reason.

Author Mike Resnick keeps the progress on the case both risky and entertaining, with a steady series of humorous moments (Eli's obnoxious dog and his overly curious landlady have leading roles). By the end of the second chapter, I was chuckling and saying "Replaces Westlake for goofy caper type crime fiction" -- and soon after, I was ignoring phone calls and work assignments to discover how Eli would juggle partnering with a "fixer" from the Chicago mob, and being chased by Bolivian killers. Plus there's a steady patter of "foodie" chat, as Eli and his contacts migrate around Cincinnati restaurants and comment on the specials.

Here are two more pieces of good news: This is the third in an established series (Dog in the Manger, originally published 2001 but reprinted by Seventh Street in 2012; and The Trojan Colt, also from Seventh Street, 2013), so there's some fun to catch up on. And Resnick is an even more established author of sci fi, much of it linked to Africa and the Kikuyu people -- so I'll be watching for his other titles over the winter.

THE BUTTON MAN also adds to an established series, but in this case Mark Pryor provides a prequel to his three Hugo Marston crime novels, all set in France: The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise. Neatly labeled "2008," the opening chapter takes place in a cemetery in London, where Marston -- a newly minted head of security for the U.S. embassy in London, after retiring from FBI profiling -- literally walks into a body. Almost immediately, he discovers it's one of the two visiting American performers he's been asked to protect as they film a movie in rural England.

And that's just the start of a quick series of startling connections among the visitors, the local politicos, and a kinky up-scale sex club out in the countryside. Soon Marston is depending on a secretive young hotel employee named Merlyn, whose surprising ties to both the actors and the club keep him racing to cope with one "situation" after another, trying to meet the demands of his job and his own sense of moral fairness.

When the rising body count betrays a possible serial killer entangled with the same individuals and institutions, Marston's job requires that he race to avert further violence. But without the final missing pieces, he's not catching up with the criminal, and time's running out.

Although the pace is much quicker and the circumstances obviously up-to-date, Pryor's mysteries remind me of the neatly twisted British work of Dame Agatha Christie: puzzles that we readers have a hair of a chance of solving before the sleuth, with memorable characters and scenes that make the most of London fog, back roads without road signs, old money and new. Traditional, professional, refreshingly suspenseful without horror -- I'd pick up (and keep) a Mark Pryor/Hugo Marston mystery any day!

Monday, October 06, 2014

Brief Mention: FOUND, Harlan Coben, Third "Mickey Bolitar" Mystery

Harlan Coben's "young adult" series featuring high school basketball player Mickey Bolitar now has three titles: Shelter and Seconds Away and the newly released Found.

Mickey's refusal to resign himself to the death of his dad, his mother's drug addiction, and being walled out of a child rescue operation that involves a survivor from the Holocaust takes him into danger and a lot of heartache, for him and his eccentric friends Ema and Spoon. Good thing the book is a swift and tightly-paced read, because I couldn't put it down, and the work schedule was at risk.

Get all three titles -- it's an ongoing and very good set of adventures, good against evil, highly satisfying. Pretend you're buying them for a friend in his or her early teens; my husband Dave pointed out that even the austere New York Times is now putting books like these into a "Young Adult Crossover" genre. The plot for Found is solid, the characters unforgettable, and I do believe I've spotted a few loose ends that promise another book in the series.

Swedish Crime Fiction: THE SECOND DEADLY SIN, Fifth from Åsa Larsson

Åsa Larsson's crime novels repeatedly win major prizes in Sweden; at last the five titles in her Rebecka Martinsson series are all available in English, with this year's release of THE SECOND DEADLY SIN. And this is one of the rare series in which it's really way, way better to start with the first book -- the four earlier titles are The Savage Altar, The Blood Spilt, The Black Path, and Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Reading them in sequence conveys the painful, steady, and yes, heroic path Rebecka Martinsson has taken from posh urban tax attorney to, as we reconnect in THE SECOND SIN, a rural district prosecutor in northern Sweden, where the country's most "backward" and land-loving families live like American "mountain" folk: trusting only each other, and alternately embracing the challenging winter and struggling to survive it.

Rebecka Martinsson's choices in the earlier titles have made her a controversial attorney, one whose hands are stained with blood -- justly or not, well, you'll have to read the others. Let's just say that she's unevenly accepted in her new role up north. A wealthy attorney from the city still comes to see her when she lets him, as her lover, but the relationship makes less sense by the month, as Martinsson's loyalties to her new community intensify.

When multiple "accidental" deaths in a family nearby accrue, Martinsson knows there can't be coincidence at play -- it's malice, wickedness, but what is the motive under the killings of such an impoverished and powerless family? When she and a local cadaver dog wrangler find themselves repeatedly saving the life of a boy who's one of the last to survive from that family, Martinsson decides to root out the criminal force behind the killings. To do it, she'll have to disobey her boss, take a leave of absence, put her job and her new sense of self at risk.

Those who've read others in the series will rejoice to find Police Inspector Ann-Maria Mella, local force for justice in spite of a misogynistic career choice and a family of her own, coming to Martinsson's assistance. The teamwork of the two determined women keeps the investigation in progress. Which is a lifesaving component when you're up against someone like the stunningly lovely but mysterious Maja Larsson, who has reasons of her own for misleading the investigation as the team tries to track down who has killed the boy Marcus's grandmother -- and why:
Larsson stared hard at Martinsson. Like a fox standing motionless in the trees at the edge of the forest, trying to decide if the approaching stranger is friend or foe. In the end she responded. Her voice was low and soft. The silver snakes were wriggling on top of her head.

"I know who you are; you're Rebecka Martinsson. Mikkio's and Virpi's daughter. You've moved back here. I didn't know what you look like nowadays -- I only met you once when you were a little girl. Well, Rebecka, you know what it's like here in the village."

"No, I don't."

"Perhaps you don't. ... People in this village are a lot of bastards but they wouldn't murder her. If I spill the beans and you then go around asking questions, they'll know I've snitched on them. And I'll have stones thrown through my windows."
But it's Rebecka Martinsson who seems likely to become, yet again, a target of the "stone throwers" as she presses against the village's darkest secrets, all to protect a child -- and a dog.

This is not "noir" writing -- it's well-paced traditional crime fiction with a very unusual investigator and dangerous circumstances. Martinsson is one of the best legal sleuths to come along, and I hope the author keeps the series going for years to come.

Meanwhile, considering the pace of translation, I'm willing to return to the first of the series and read all five of them again. (Yes, they are really are THAT good.)

PS -- Can't recall what the second deadly sin was supposed to be? Go ahead, look it up. It's worth remembering it again.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Hunting Season: Revealing the Threat in ONLY THE DEAD, Vidar Sunstøl

Maybe you have to live in a place like Vermont -- or Minnesota, or Wyoming, or even Oregon or Alaska, maybe Maine ... a few more -- to grasp the powerful mix of emotions and motives in play during hunting season. Because I live among hunters and the hunted, I found Vidar Sundstøl's newest translated title, ONLY THE DEAD, entirely compelling, engrossing, and so grimly effective that it silenced me for hours afterward (not counting sleep time). It may be the most powerful work of suspense I've ever read. And oddly, strangely, marvelously, it's published by the University of Minnesota Press.

This is the second volume of an intense and amazing trilogy that translator extraordinaire Tiina Nunnally and the press are making available to American readers, one per year. Last December I savored all of the first volume, The Land of Dreams. (Review here.) The "Minnesota Trilogy" is dark, lush Scandinavian mystery writing (by a celebrated Norwegian author) but set in Minnesota, where so many Scandinavians settled. U.S. Forest Service officer Lance Hansen's probing of his own Norwegian genealogy turned disturbing in the first book of the trilogy as he uncovered family ties to local Native Americans -- the tribal people of deep dreams, to which he'd thought only his ex-wife and their child (and of course his ex-wife's parents) were directly connected. Layering evidence from the past and present, Hansen then finds himself bound to a possible murder from the settlers' times, and simultaneously to frightening dishonesty among people he cares about in his community and family.

It's hard to say more without giving away too many of the sharp and necessary twists of The Land of Dreams here -- so I'll say it this way: In the second book, ONLY THE DEAD, Hansen enters a frightening dance of intent and secrets with his own brother, during an ice storm, during hunting season. The guns are real; so are the threats.

This volume is only 156 pages long -- far more slim than the first volume -- and I have to say it is as meticulously trimmed of unnecessary detail as a fine poem would be. Or a well-butchered and lean-muscled animal, captured for winter sustenance. There are few comparable books out there; maybe The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was one of them, or some of Alan Furst's painful and tender revelations of espionage in Eastern Europe. To compress the action and exalt the tension the way Sundstøl does here creates a haunted interlude in a very particular setting.

Here in Vermont, we do suffer an occasional "ice storm" -- a weather event when rain freezes as it lands, coating trees, houses, and roads with glistening and deadly ice. In ONLY THE DEAD, that menace is framed around firearms and mistrust and danger.

Highly recommended. Don't compare the price to the page count; compare it instead to the years this book will linger, and the way it will displace every other noir novel as it brings to life Cain and Abel, and reveals the presence of violence -- and how we can neglect to escape while we have a chance -- in our landscape and our minds.

And speaking of that landscape, actually, I take back what I said at the start. Having walked home in the dark on quite a few city streets ... the hunt will translate effectively from the Minnesota forests, to wherever you're living now.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Lee Child, Rose Solari, Justin Kramon: Mysteries in Three Subgenres

It would be hard to deliberately find three books as different from each other as the three I'm presenting today -- and yet they are all clearly mysteries. And each can be recommended for the skills of its author, the vivid characters and lively action, and the twists that require resolution -- as well as the crime-solving involved.

Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel, PERSONAL, leaves behind the cross-country journeys that took Reacher at last to meet the woman in a secure office who seemed to understand him so well; I really enjoyed that sequence, so I wasn't sure of my footing as this new adventure opened. Then again, Reacher's not so sure of himself in this one, either -- a pair of military intelligence officers who've worked with him over the years summon him to international action, tracking down a sniper who threatens to destabilize an upcoming G8 meeting, where the leaders of the most developed economies plan to meet in Europe. Because there's good reason to think Reacher has already captured this sniper once before, he's the ideal tracker. More than that: The sniper has a personal grudge against him that might be useful in drawing the criminal out of hiding before the governmental meeting is scheduled.

If you're already a Lee Child/Jack Reacher fan, PERSONAL will strike you as classic: the high-tension and violent action, Reacher's own scruples, his ability to partner for the job with a strong woman and then to protect her, and his deep mistrust for all organizations, including his own military group. The writing is practiced, smooth, swift -- there are no distractions from the rapid pace, other than Reacher's questions and doubts that ripple among the scenes. And if you've never read one of these, you'll be a bit baffled from time to time in terms of why Reacher is this way, but it shouldn't interfere with enjoying the thriller. I'm a fan; I enjoyed this one at least as much as any of the preceding titles in the series, and I learned more than I'll ever use (I hope!) about snipers.

A SECRET WOMAN by Rose Solari was actually first released in 2012, but the author is also a poet and her newest collection of poems, The Last Girl, is scheduled for November release -- which may be why her publisher sent out some copies of the mystery this year for reviews. If you couldn't quite swallow the male tilt of some recent "mystical" mysteries, this secret-knowledge-journey mystery founded in women's quests could be the perfect antidote. Louise Terry's paintings are diverging from the woman-centered theme promoted by the arts co-op she helped to found -- and an unexpected inheritance from her mother, passed along to her by a Catholic priest at a retreat, sends her to England to rediscover why her mother abandoned her, and what mystic and historic threads may be replaying in her mind and her paintings. There's enough crime tucked in to keep the book well inside the mystery genre, and in many ways it's more believable than, say, a Dan Brown confection. I enjoyed the cross-generation discoveries and the very vivid tensions from artists manipulating each other. The ending wouldn't rank high on my favorites list, so I wish Solari had left off the final scene -- but even so, it's a good read and kept me engaged. If you love mystical mysteries, grab it.

Justin Kramon's creepy suspense novel THE PRESERVATIONIST fits the newest label on the shelves, "new adult" -- Julia Stilwell, a plucky but vulnerable college student, gets caught in a classic psycho twist between two men, one of whom is very, very dangerous. Will she figure it out in time to protect herself, body and soul and especially mind? The hardcover came out in 2013, and this month the softcover is on hand. Brace for plenty of suspense. Knowing what the stalker is thinking makes it extra hard to be patient with the intended victim ... fortunately, Kramon also has a deft touch with unexpected humor, and carries the twists and turns smoothly to an unexpected but satisfying wrap-up. Oh: Don't give this to a college student. They've got enough scary things to worry about already.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Classic Mystery Puzzle With Dash of Romance: HARBOR ISLAND, Carla Neggers

The new Sharpe and Donovan mystery from Carla Neggers, HARBOR ISLAND, came out just as the garden demanded harvesting and pickling, but I managed to stay up extra late and keep reading -- because Neggers is a storyteller who constantly nudges the next "and then ..." into place.

FBI Agent Emma Sharpe's new status as fiancée of another FBI agent, Colin Donovan, hasn't yet been announced to her family, and there's always a fresh conflict of interest for her on the job: Which is more her core, her agent status or her family's profession in solving art crimes? Added to that, Colin's still wondering how she'll handle the engagement, considering that her past includes a season in Maine as a postulant -- not quite a nun, but to Colin and his brothers, there's not much difference.

True to classic Neggers style, the author juggles Emma and Colin's uncertainties with the way each of them is called to step into danger to chase the art thief they've hunted for in Ireland in a preceding book. And now the thief seems to have followed them home to New England and may be turning violent -- a sudden death by gunshot of an informant can't be a coincidence, can it?

HARBOR ISLAND is also a traditional puzzle mystery, as it sets up a small cast of characters and moves the question around the group: Motive? Means? Opportunity? Will it be Emma or Colin who finally cracks the case?

A big part of the charm of this series is its settings, from Boston to Maine to Ireland and back again. Count on each clue holding some meaning, neat twist of plot, and tidbits about Irish whiskey tucked in often. This isn't quite a "cozy" mystery, as the sleuths are professionals, not amateurs, but between the romance and the landscapes, it's a gentle read, ideal for unwinding by an autumn woodstove with a cup of tea and a cat. Or something even sweeeter.

14th Peter Diamond Investigation: THE STONE WIFE, Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey's nicely paced British crime fiction takes the old-fashioned taste for classic Agatha Christie, and updates it with quirky humor and just enough staff friction to make Chief Superintendent Peter Diamond tear out a bit more hair. Lovesey begin his crime writing in 1969, winning a 1970 award for Wobble to Death, which combined his knowledge of Victorian athletics (who knew!?) with neat plot twists and likeable characters.

With this season's release, Lovesey steps onto the hallowed ground of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales -- the "stone wife" is a relief carving of the Wife of Bath, one of Chaucer's more ribald narrators, and the book opens with the massive stone at auction. Who's pushing the price beyond twenty thousand? How can the lightweight Professor Gildersleeve hang in with the bidding? And, strangest of all, why are three robbers in black face masks trying to hijack the auction? Ooops -- a fierce gesture of courage from the otherwise ignorable professor leads to a shot fired, and suddenly there's a death to investigate, as the would-be robbers panic and take off.

The investigation jams up quickly with problems: Chief Superintendent Diamond literally falls on the stone carving, damaging his office in his tumble; he has a plan for Sergeant Ingeborg Smith to dig into the crime, while the youngest member of his team "takes initiative" and turns Smith's careful work into a dangerous disaster; and motives abound for an ex-wife, another professor, an art hound, and more.

Awarded the 2000 Cartier Diamond Dagger from Britain's Crime Writers Association, Lovesey (born in 1938, author of more than 30 books; I also like his Victorian series with Sergeant Cribb, which was a TV hit) hasn't slowed down, although his characters are a bit less fractured and a bit sweeter in their old age. THE STONE WIFE will entertain a reader for several autumn evenings, or can go in the "to be read" stack to grace the shorter days ahead. Kudos to Soho Crime for sustaining this stylish series.

Friday, September 05, 2014

A New Glasgow Crime Fiction Voice: Malcolm Mackay

Denise Mina. Tana French. William McIlvanney. Stuart Neville. Whether the setting is Ireland or urban Scotland, these authors authors bring us dark crime fiction that confronts the "other side" of British dominion: the long shadow of war and domination, whether invited or not, that seems to justify a bitter and violent response from a conquered culture.

On a recent trip "across the border" to Canada, Dave and I prowled the shelves at Brome Lake Books, looking for authors we might not have come across here in the States. The book I brought home was THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER by Malcolm Mackay. It's "Glasgow noir," told from the point of view of the criminal underworld -- but it's also a wonderful sort of "Heart of Darkness," tugging at the results of one "necessary" murder. There's an insistent intimacy to the way the characters show their lives, even told in the third person; who'd have guessed that sociopaths could seem so honorable and likeable? Ooops, it's fiction, right? (But think Whitey Bulger and you won't be far off.)

Mackay's books are spinning across the Atlantic, and at least the three that make up his Glasgow Trilogy are pretty easy to order; his fourth, The Night the Rich Men Burned, is harder to find at this point. But that's okay -- I devoured THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER and I'm glad to take my time adding the others to my shelf. Check out the author's website if you have a moment.

MARY: THE SUMMONING, YA Horror from Hillary Monahan

Campfire season lingers here in Vermont, through the crisp fall evenings. But the summer is over, and most of the sleepovers are, too.

But aren't those great memories? I still relish the story of the girl with the green ribbon around her neck, learned at an overnight with neighborhood kids. And there's the one with the voice that calls out, "Mary, I'm on the second step ..." Ooooh!

I wish I'd had a copy of MARY: THE SUMMONING at the start of the summer (or back in the days of those teen get-togethers). It took me a couple of days to shake off the shivers from this deftly written and quick-paced horror story featuring four teenage girls and a mirror -- and a malevolent spirit who won't leave them alone. And then, of course, I wanted to tell the story to anyone else who wanted to feel really scared.

This is Hillary Monahan's debut, but you wouldn't know from the writing, which is tight and exciting. It's based in part on the folklore of "Bloody Mary" -- which I looked up and found is every bit as shivery as this book (click here for the folklore). If you have a teen you'd like to impress or delight with a blood-curdling tale where determination and inner strength matter, pick up a copy.

Just make sure to leave time to read it yourself, first!

***

A glimpse of what Shauna discovers:
I wished Jess had known what could happen so she could have prepared us, so we would have known to run long and run far to get away from Bloody Mary.

Then it hit me. Maybe Jess had known. The pictures on the wall. She'd taken the pictures down. Why would she suspect Mary could be anywhere other than a proper mirror? She'd said safety, but that was a bizarre leap to make.

"Oh no. Come on," I whispered. "No."
And later:
Scree. Scree.

THUD!

I shot up in bed, the cuts on my back screaming. My vanity trembled. My plastic bucket of makeup tumbled over ... There was no way I could sleep in this house if she was in the mirror. I counted down from three and jerked the robe aside. There was no face there, but written backward in sludgy black tar was a single word that sent me falling to the floor and sobbing.

MINE.

New on This Week's Bookshelf: Neggers, Child, French, Turner, and Briefly, Penny

I purchased these and they came by mail this week, so count on reviews over the next few weeks -- I'm also working on a stack of advance review copies of other titles, and I'll probably interleave the two categories. But I wanted to let you know what I picked up most recently:

HARBOR ISLAND by Carla Neggers. Few realize this gifted author of romantic suspense is a Vermonter ... her multiple series span several police forces and take place on two continents. This one features Sharpe and Donovan. I always know a new Carla Neggers mystery means a deft plot twist, likeable sleuths, and a satisfying ending. I buy these "for me."

But I also can't resist Lee Child's Jack Reacher series -- where the pace drives me into staying up half the night, and Reacher has just enough honor and vulnerability to keep me wanting to know more. So I've picked up PERSONAL. Can hardly wait. (US cover on left, UK on right.)

The most depth and provocative ideas are sure to come in the Tana French book in my stack, THE SECRET PLACE. French rotates protagonists in her Dublin Murder Squad series and makes it clear how directly the crimes and sins of the past impact the present.

Which leads me to my fourth acquisiton: from poet and Iraq war veteran Brian Turner, the new memoir, MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY. Dave and I are already gently competing on who gets to read this one first -- we're passionate about Turner's writing, and the way he shows us both war and the human heart. No, it's not a mystery ... unless you count the enjoyable investigation of how Turner carries revelation and suspense and meaning into his pages.

Now, back to those other books I've already savored and want to mention -- oh yes, one more quick tidbit. I've changed my mind about something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago: I'm not going to review Louise Penny's new Armand Gamache mystery, THE LONG WAY HOME, in any detail. I think Penny dropped a lot of items in this one that should have been woven more effectively into the book, and I'm not happy with the way she tipped a crime into a book that otherwise reads as a series of personal investigations into art and creativity. Fans of the series -- and I am definitely a fan! -- will want this anyway for the sake of the Three Pines characters, but I think it's best viewed as a draft of a better book she could have written. Those who explore her website or follow her newsletters know she's had a hard year personally, and I tip my hat to her for completing her work within the yearly publishing schedule that her fame now demands. Everyone deserves a "pass" at least once in a writing career, and I'll let this book slide without further comment.