Sunday, June 21, 2020

Murder in the Hamptons: Carrie Doyle's Series Goes Mass Market This Summer

Good news: Carrie Doyle's mystery series set in the Hamptons (at the far end of New York's Long Island) has hit the reprint jackpot and is being reissued this summer by Poisoned Pen Press, now a mystery imprint of Sourcebooks. Bad news: Someone put a really silly cover onto the reprint of DEATH ON WINDMILL WAY (the first of the series). Good news: We all know how to ignore a cover -- and in this case, there's a good mystery inside the book. Bad news: The title sounds like this is set in either a Dutch holiday resort, or a suburb that's named the roads in its developments using too large a committee. Good news: This is actually an innkeeper mystery with a lot of pizzazz.

DEATH ON WINDMILL WAY opens with a sneaky prologue that ensures reader awareness of a malicious murderer causing a death at the inn. Then it leaps to the point of view, maintained for the rest of the books, of innkeeper Antonia Bingham. New to inn ownership and to the conundrum of Hamptons life -- the feel of a village among the year-rounders, but also acute dependence on the multimillionaires owning property in the beach-based Nirvana, and on heedless tourists -- Antonia has a lot to master: meal and snack prep that lives up to the high-end expectations of the resort area (she's a "foodie" so that's natural to her), flawless management of staff and premises (she has high expectations of herself), and of course a personal life that's sure to flip back and forth from romantic hope to business despair.

So the last thing she needs is to learn a rumor that owners of her newly purchased premises, the Windmill Inn, are fated to die under suspicious circumstances. Sharpening the discomfort is the news that her predecessor may indeed (as readers of course already know) have been murdered. "Before she had heard the suspicious deaths rumor, she had been fine. In fact, she had been sleeping in this inn for six months and never felt frightened. She wasn't a scaredy-cat ... She was the boss! ... She would not succumb to hysteria."

Doyle's writing is generally plot related, with plenty of Antonia's inner view of events and stresses. But this description she provides of the village around the inn sets the outdoor scene nicely:
East Hampton, renowned for its award-winning beaches, picturesque villages, and the ethereal light that had inspired some of the greatest American painters, is nestled on the top of Long Island's south shore, bordered by the Atlantic on one side and various bays on the other. Everything about the town is profoundly quaint: from the acres of farmland bursting with abundant crops to the shaded streets lined with windmills, shingled houses, and churches.
Then there are the characters from whom Antonia tries to pull details, including Naomi, who sold the inn to her:
"The official cause of death [for Gordon, the previous owner] was ... a heart attack," she said at last, glaring at Barbie, who still wouldn't meet her eye.

Antonia felt her heart race. "What was the unofficial cause of death?"

Naomi finally glanced in Antonia's direction. She gave a small smile, her lips curling enough so that her thin top lip disappeared into the bottom. The look reminded Antonia of a defiant child forced to lie to a teacher.

"Heart attack," Naomi repeated before adding, "but I'd bet my bottom dollar that this tramp here figured out a way to cause it."...

Antonia kept her eyes on Naomi. "Why didn't you tell the police if you suspected it?" asked Antonia.

Naomi rolled her eyes. "I wanted to make sure I could sell the inn. No one would have bought this place if they thought Gordon was murdered."
Antonia's friend Genevieve, who'd invited her East to buy the place, thinks the amateur detective role suits this new innkeeper to the max: "You're kind of nosy," she points out. "I mean, didn't your parents nickname you Snoopy because you were always snooping around?"

But the motive for the killings — yes, they multiply — begins to also threaten Antonia as she gets closer to understanding what's taken place. There's an inheritance at stake, for instance, as well as bad blood among previous employees of her inn.

Gutsy in a determined fashion, and creative in staging a situation to unravel the crimes, Antonia is a nice addition to modern amateur sleuths. And in spite of her relief at the end of the book ("glad to be officially out of the crime-solving business"), Poisoned Pen Press has two more in the series ready for this summer (amazing! three books in one summer! a treat for this who get frustrated with the slow pace of a series), and Carrie Doyle's fourth in her Hamptons murder mysteries will publish in 2021.

Just remember: Ignore the cover. Ignore the title. Go for the fun of an easy-read mystery in a charming setting. That's what summer (in the Hamptons or anyplace else) is meant for.

Note for mystery collectors: You could set up a nifty shelf of Hamptons mysteries, now that Doyle is adding so many. For instance, there James Patterson's The Beach House, Twanged from Carol Higgins Clark, even an R. L. Stine trio called The Sitter.
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.   

Monday, June 01, 2020

Space Force Military Thriller from Dale Brown, EAGLE STATION

“The suspense of Eagle Station lies in how each detailed flight maneuver in air or space will turn out, and who’ll walk away with few enough injuries to survive—and return to Earth with enough air and fuel to complete the trip.”

Dale Brown’s Patrick McLanahan series of military thrillers developed a second generation a few years ago, and Eagle Station is the sixth book featuring Patrick’s son Brad McLanahan. It’s good to know that these protagonists will survive for more books in the series, if possible, as military expeditions and necessary sacrifices multiply.

In Eagle Station, the United States is engaged in an undeclared but very real war with Russia and China, for dominance of the air globally and of the nearer regions of space. The author is a former U.S. Air Force captain, and the first few chapters are nonstop equipment narratives. (There’s even a a glossary of weapons and acronyms at the back of the book, for readers who love the Air Force and Space Force related details.)

Although the U.S. military, including Brad McLanahan and his about-to-be wife Nadia Rozek, has a lot to celebrate as the book opens, having captured and turned around to its own use an armed Russian satelite (“weapons platform”), renaming it Eagle Station, there’s still an ongoing struggle for world dominance among the great forces, and the American team’s showing off new tech marvels in a face-off for control with the Chinese in the South China Sea. No sooner do Brad and Nadia finish this perilous exercise than their planning skills are in demand back at home for an international rescue mission that will depend on their extraordinary flight skills under fire.

Chapters from the points of view of Russian and Chinese military leaders let readers know, well before Brad does, that the superpowers on the other side of the globe have a new target to dominate: the Moon. Chinese president Li Jun and Russia’s de facto leader Marshal Leonov pool their resources to place a military base on the “dark side” of Earth’s moon. Their successful feint toward a different project manages to leave the Americans behind.

But the U.S. military with the McLanahans involved is more than an armed service: It’s linked intimately with military-led private enterprise, big investments, and teamwork with an American President who trusts this team.

And Brad McLanahan points out that the enemy collaborators are far from stupid: “He shook his head. ‘Okay, look, I get the drift. A surprise return to the lunar surface would be a huge propaganda win for Russia and China. But the risks involved in using a wholly untested spacecraft for a stunt like that are huge. One serious hardware malfunction or one software glitch at just the wrong time and five gets you ten, you end up with a bunch of dead guys drifting in orbit or smashed to pieces in some crater.’ Nadia frowned at him. ‘You should not assume that Marshal Leonov and President Li Jun share our views on the value of human life.’”

Brown’s writing offers no hidden motives or turncoats—everything is right out front, including enemy maneuvers. And enemy aliens have no redeeming features. The suspense of Eagle Station lies in how each detailed flight maneuver in air or space will turn out, and who’ll walk away with few enough injuries to survive—and return to Earth with enough air and fuel to complete the trip.

Although character development is not part of this book’s structure, the use of technology foreshadowed by today’s collaborations of government, the Space Force, and private enterprise is outlined in striking detail. In fact, some of the gear described has already been asssembled by corporate groups like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance, as Brown notes at the start of the book. Brown’s fast-paced and risky portrayal of what the globe could see in terms of conflict is set in the very near future: labeled with the year 2022, with recent SpaceX news already meeting this tech fiction halfway.

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

Monday, May 25, 2020

Crime Fiction and Love: The Caitlin Strong Series from Jon Land (and More) [July release]

Crime fiction + Love: It shouldn't be an unexpected pairing. In some cases the masculine or police environment might call for using the term "loyalty" instead, but thumbing through favorite modern mysteries, often a powerful affection between characters acts to tighten the grip of a desperate choice for the investigator.

Look at some of the very popular series in print today: Louise Penny's Armand Gamache series, where Gamache puts himself at risk time and again for the sake of the people on his team, and they respond by maturing and developing deeper courage. Gamache's love for his wife is also front and center in the series, as well as the complicated relationship he has with his eventual son-in-law.

Julia Spencer-Fleming's police procedurals, set in upstate New York, circle around how alcohol and drug abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder affect Claire and Russ as they struggle to prevent and solve murders; Lee Child's Jack Reacher engages in local conflicts for the sake of individuals he's drawn to (and the heartbreak of the series lies in how often he loses contact with those people by the end of an investigation); Tim Hallinan's remarkable Bangkok books, the Poke Rafferty mysteries, focus on what Poke will do to protect and preserve his family and friends; and Julia Keller's West Virginia crime fiction confronting the scourge of opioid addiction does it "up close and personal" through family dynamics.

Jon Land writes several series, and my favorite, hands down, is his Caitlin Strong series. There's a whiff of paranormal to it, because the outrageously loyal and physically strong Guillermo Paz, a unique sidekick to investigators Caitlin Strong and Cort Wesley Masters, often feels driven by a sixth sense that lets him know when "his Texas Ranger," Caitlin, needs his protection. And Cort Wesley sorts through his quandaries with a rootbeer-drinking ghost. Beyond that, however, the books engage the classic motivations for Big Crime (everything in Texas is big, right?) and in a unique historical strand, they retell escapades from the previous generations of Caitlin's family who've also been Texas Rangers.

STRONG FROM THE HEART sends Caitlin hunting the roots of a Big Pharma cabal that's accidentally poisoned an entire Texas town. She needs to get to the criminals as fast as possible, because it's becoming clear that they are the same ones responsible for Cort Wesley's son -- a boy she has mothered for a decade -- making a nearly fatal experiment with snorting an opioid. Cort Wesley, not being an official law enforcement officer, is likely to face serious charges himself if he takes vigilante action against the cabal or its Texas-based leader. And just incidentally, the criminals here are psychopathic enough to re-target Caitlin's family in order to hurt her more.

Deepening the intensity of Caitlin Strong's pursuit is her even more personal stake this time: She's been taking Vicodin to deal with massive cranial trauma she received (see Strong as Steel), and both the targeted youth and her federal-level colleague "Jones" have hinted that she may herself have become an addict.

This book's title fits with another ongoing conflict of love and values in the book: Caitlin's struggle to define her position in terms of a recently discovered half-sister, Nola, who's far more violent (without regrets) than Caitlin herself:
"Let me handle this, Cort Wesley," Caitlin said, when she saw Nola Delgado drinking a Corona in one of the parking lot's few shady spots.

"I was thinking we double-team her."

"Better I do this alone."


"Because we share the same blood."

"But not the same heart, Ranger. Yours is as big and strong as your name. Hers most likely resembles a spoiled peach pit."
Later in the same scene, as Nola tries to goad Caitlin:
Caitlin didn't bristle at being addressed that way today. Maybe she was getting used to the truth. Maybe that was part of what Cort Wesley was getting at, being strong from the heart.
Reading Land's Caitlin Strong series requires relaxing with his very short chapters, thriller style, and having a few loose ends left behind (if Caitlin gets rid of her Vicodin, how's she going to handle the cranial pain, especially after she re-injures her head in another explosion?). But it's prime escape fiction, follows enough of the genre conventions to be satisfying, and -- yes, it's packed with how people act when motivated by love and loyalty.

No need to read the others in the series first -- they are not very dependent on sequence, so they make ideal titles to keep on the shelf for entertaining re-reading.

At the moment, the publication date for STRONG FROM THE HEART is July 28, from Forge Books. We don't often post this far in advance about a book, but this is an especially good year to pre-order, whether from a local bookstore or online.

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


You know how love makes your heart grow stronger, but also more vulnerable? Right, you've got it. Well, here's a personal story: A few years ago, Jon Land placed "Kingdom Books" into one of his other series, the one he co-writes with Jessica Fletcher under the "Murder, She Wrote" brand. He did it as a surprise gift to my husband Dave and me. And when the review copy came in the mail, we had just sold the books that made up the retail part of our "collector's resource" business here. Yes, all of them. Our hearts were broken. And I couldn't figure out how to tell Jon what had happened.

Dave and I were very fortunate to "find each other" when we were fifty, and to enjoy savoring books together. One reason we let go of the Kingdom Books retail end was, Dave had a cancer diagnosis and we knew the rest of our time was limited, as his could not be treated. A year after that, I had one also (mine was treatable, though). And in April 2019, when Strong as Steel was released, Dave died.

Some of you already know the fierce loss and storms of change that follow the long illness and then death of a spouse. (If you haven't experienced it, I'm glad for you -- but you also may not be able to guess how it takes your world off balance.) I'm back in the saddle, reviewing crime fiction/mystery books, usually at or before their release dates. I'm sorry that I wasn't "there for Jon" during that interlude. But ... as someone who positions love and loyalty so centrally in his books, I bet he understands.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Finale of the Poke Rafferty (Bangkok) Series from Timothy Hallinan, STREET MUSIC

[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Despite the classic investigations that Poke leaps into, with violence and threat and red herrings and regret, Poke Rafferty is a person who cares enough to listen, to experience, and to change, even in this final volume of the series.”

One of the best loved international crime fiction series ends this season, as Tim Hallinan’s Street Music is the ninth and final book on his Poke Rafferty Thrillers (Soho Press). Catching attention in the fourth book with an Edgar nomination for The Queen of Patpong, Hallinan's Poke Rafferty Thailand novels have won wide acclaim. 

For readers already following the series, Street Music represents a bittersweet farewell to the “little family” than Hallinan has nurtured. First there’s been Poke Rafferty himself, an American writer who settled in Bangkok, won over by its people and sense of community. Poke’s marriage to Rose, a “bar girl” and former “Queen” of the Patpong bars, created the frame for their eventual adoption of a much-battered but creative, caring, and eventually loving daughter, Miaow, a child of the streets.
Street Music opens with the presence of a new member of the family, a baby that’s already been highly controversial earlier in the series. It’s a boy! But Poke’s not finding “natural” fathering impulses; Rose’s ever-present set of women friends crowding him out of the bedroom and onto a lumpy couch has a lot to do with this. But so does the kind of parenting he’s already been doing, growing into protecting and nurturing Miaow. Her street roots have engaged her in peril multiple times, and Poke routinely mobilizes friends, especially one in the Bangkok police force, to help.

What peril approaches Poke and especially Miaow when a mysterious street women begins to follow him and asks him for a huge amount of cash as “protection money” to keep her from destroying the little family? How can Poke handle the resulting chaos without upsetting Rose and bringing risk to the baby as well? It’s rough when you find yourself lying to the people you love best, in order to take care of them.

An Afterword by Hallinan recaps his approach to the series, and the startling effect that setting up a first scene that involved Poke + wife + daughter + groceries = family. “The word family did the trick,” he explains. “I barely knew who these people were but the moment I realized they were a family, I thought that it might be interesting to drop a normal—if intercultural and self-assembled—family, who are trying to preserve relationships along traditional lines, into the world capital of instant gratification”—that is, into Bangkok.

Not only is Poke Rafferty being followed and blackmailed in Street Music—he’s also coming to terms with his understanding of poverty, which doesn’t always lead to crime (although he’d about to find evidence of possible murder). Another former bar girl, Toots, lays it out for him: “Some lady no good. I poor girl too, Poke. Then I lucky too much, marry Leon, but before, when I have no money, I not take. Not good for karma. You know, you are poor and you good, you win. You poor and you bad, poor win.”

This is exactly the kind of moment that makes Hallinan’s crime fiction, especially the Poke Rafferty series, so interesting and unusual: Despite the classic investigations that Poke leaps into, with violence and threat and red herrings and regret, Poke Rafferty is a person who cares enough to listen, to experience, and to change, even in this final volume of the series.

What does Poke learn about Miaow’s original parent(s), after all this time raising her? How will he come to grips with being the father of a baby boy, and the husband of a woman who’s just experienced her own major transition? Which friends will lead him into more danger to his family, and which will help him walk through it and survive?

Street Music is very readable without the earlier books in the series. But it’s a richer read when placed in their context. Read the others before it or after; chances are, once you’ve entered Poke Rafferty’s community, you too will experience some of his reasons to change.

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

Take Back Your Life: Women Get Stronger in THE LAST FLIGHT, Suspense from Julie Clark

All the publication dates lately are sliding around, as book publishers and bookstores adapt to a virus-threatened world. Ever get the feeling we are already living in a suspense novel of our own?

Still, THE LAST FLIGHT from Julie Clark has a pretty firm new release date of June 23 from Sourcebooks. And if you love a powerful and creepy work of suspense, so smoothly written that all you need to do is check that the doors are locked and keep turning the pages, this would be a great time to pre-order this crime novel. It's Julie Clark's second (the first was The Ones We Choose, in 2018). Chilling, twisty, and highly memorable, it's a good escape for the summer reading stack. Reader Beware: If you've been in the midst of an abusive situation, whether as the person working for a way out, or as the friend of someone facing those scary choices, THE LAST FLIGHT will nudge all your trauma buttons. And then, if you can keep going all the way through the book, it may convince you that if we "see" each other and lend a hand, there will be more fresh starts.

Claire Taylor Cook's trapped in a marriage so cruel, with a political husband so powerful, that her own death might be the only way out of it. With the help of a friend from her own past who has connections with organized crime, Claire begins plotting her own escape. It's not going to be easy—her abusive husband has her monitored all the time—but just the hope is enough to help her keep going: "Over the next year, Petra and I assembled a plan, choreographing my disappearance ore carefully than a ballet. A sequence of events so perfectly timed, there could be no room for error."

But of course, life's unpredictable. When an air crash threatens Claire's plan yet offers her a chance to hide in a new way, she takes action:
My eyes land on Eva's purse, and I reach into it and pull out a ring of keys and her wallet. I pocket the keys and open the wallet, memorizing the address on her license. 543 Le Roy. I don't hesitate. I walk out of the airport, into the bright California sunshine, and hail a cab.
It seems almost too easy—and it turns out to be dangerous. Soon Claire's risks have doubled, with the husband she's tried to escape hunting for her, and her "new life" being far from safe as well.

Clark's intense pacing turns even more compelling as she adds further twists. And when the book's done, even quarantine won't look so stressful anymore. Highly recommended for those who appreciate a thriller that's taut, edgy, and terrifying.

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Fine Traditional Crime Fiction with Spice, from Caroline B. Cooney: BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN

What a delight to plunge into a well-spun story in the hands of a skilled and powerful storyteller: BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN is (at a rough count) book 64 from Caroline B. Cooney, and it has a polished flow that makes its creeping uneasiness all the more striking. And yet it's also an entertaining book, in the sense that any awareness of how our lives muddle along in our "golden years" had to make us either laugh or weep.

For Clemmie—that is, Clementine Lakefield, a resident in a senior development populated by nosy neighbors, golf carts, and planned activities—accidentally exploring a neighbor's home plunges her into the risks and dangers of both her own past and her neighbors'. She's been living a carefully fabricated and protected existence, where even her closest relatives don't know her exact address and haven't been to visit her. But her neatly constructed barriers are not enough to block a swift search for her by a drug-crime kingpin, once she casually shared a photo of an object she's spotted at her neighbor's residence.

The tastiest part of BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN is Cooney's clever entry into Clemmie's life as an elderly lady, hiding out:
Clemmie stared at herself in the bathroom mirror. When her beautiful black hair first began to go gray, she'd dyed it, but when it got so sparse that her scalp showed, she'd started wearing a wig. Latin students were always the best kids, and classes were always small, so behavior was rarely a problem, but the fact was, you needed every weapon at your disposal when you were in charge of teenagers. Clemmie tried not to show weakness, even if the weakness was just thinning hair. ...

It was crucial to be calm. She knew from way too many encounters that panic was the deciding factor in failure. Looking her best would help her keep her poise. ... She crept out of Blue Lilac, the shivers starting in her gut but not yet visible on her body.
There's a familiar classic flavor to Cooney's writing, even as the suspense continues to ramp up. How powerful are the forces arrayed against Clemmie? Even if she survives this conflict with a crime network, will she still have any familiar, safe life to return to? Or will all the shame and horror she's carefully hidden be exposed?

A good fat traditional mystery of about 300 pages, with spicy insight, and a perfect distraction from the stresses beyond the doors. Take the passenger seat with this remarkable lady under fire. Published under the Poisoned Pen Press, by Sourcebooks.

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Brief Mention: CAGE by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Intense Icelandic Crime Fiction

Even before opening CAGE, the new crime novel from Iceland's Lilja Sigurðardóttir, there are three big "yes I want to read this" aspects to appreciate: (1) This is book three in Sigurðardóttir's outstanding Reykjavik noir series, which began with Snare, followed by Trap. (2) The translator is Quentin Bates, an award-winning crime novelist himself. (3) The publisher is Orenda Books, which is steadily and rapidly bringing outrageous and outstanding European fiction across the ocean. And here's a bonus point: The cover blurb is from the amazing Val McDermid.

Here is the only reason not to crack it open: The sex scenes in it are often quirky and sometimes sadistic. Although also sometimes heartbreakingly tender. Make your own choice on that basis.

The book opens with Agla, a gifted financial criminal, approaching the end of her prison sentence. Heartbroken at a lover's refusal before her time in jail, she's stayed depressed, isolated, and angry during her sentence—where she's also one of the few lesbians. When a cute and quirky woman seduces her in prison, she loses her heart all over again, and hopes for a life of love after release.

It's not that simple, though, because both of them and the people they connect with have dangerous ties to complex international criminal networks. And where there's high finance in such crime, there's also sexual trafficking of various sorts. It heats up quickly, starting with this prison visit:
'Yes, I know him,' Agla had said two weeks ago, and she had signed the visit request, even though she had never heard of this man before. Her curiosity had been sparked by the email in which he requested a visit. He had stated that there was an important business matter they should meet to discuss. She had forgotten about it until now. ...

He stood up and held his business card up to the glass. She could see a little picture of him in one corner, under the company's logo. Agla raised an eyebrow. International companies didn't make a habit of searching out convicts in Icelandic prisons to offer them work.
Pair these strands with a journalist who gets in over her head, and a pair of teens setting up an explosive hate crime, and CAGE is nonstop action all the way. Don't pick it up, of course, if the kinky sex will bother you -- but you can rely on a sort of justice eventually being established. It's a good ride.

Books by this author are arriving in the US a couple of years behind their European publication -- understandable with the time for translation. And worth waiting for.

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

Brief Mention: Fine Caper Crime Novel, LITTLE SIBERIA by Antti Tuomainen

A would-be race-car driver attempts suicide by fast car on a winter road in Finland, when instead of crashing the way he'd planned, his car is ripped apart by a random meteorite.

Now that's an opening that no crime novel has ever come close to! And from here, award-winning Finnish suspense author Antti Tuomainen rolls his snowball through one caper twist after another. For instance, there the value of the meteor—and the people who want it. Not to mention the small town where it gets placed temporarily and notoriously.

Here's a sample of Tuomainen's mid-novel explication, from the local pastor's point of view—a man with serious doubts about his own life:
The meteorite will be in the War Museum for a further two nights.

The list of people keen to get their hands on it seems to grow as time runs out. As for Leonid, I am in no doubt. He wants the meteorite. Karolina wants the meteorite and is apparently willing to collaborate with me — the guard on the night shift — to get it. Leonid is in love with Karolina, a matter that raises a number of questions.

Is Karolina employing Leonid's help in order to achieve her goal? If she is, why does she want to involve me in her plans? And if she isn't, why has she stared a relationship with a man for whom she feels no attraction? ... I feel as though I know them too well to think of them as my pursuers, and too little to know what really moves and motivates them. Of course, that applies to everyone I know, including my own wife. I don't even know the people I know.

Two more nights.
If you've had enough of the depressive side of "Scandinavian noir," here's your opportunity to snicker, guffaw, smirk, and otherwise enjoy a lively, fast-moving crime novel of marvelously black humor. Hurrah for Orenda Books bringing Tuomainen across the ocean, and for the deft translation by David Hackston.

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

American Espionage Deepens, with THE COLDEST WARRIOR from Paul Vidich

[Originally published at the New York Journal of Books]

There are two special pleasures for a book reviewer: to spot a stirring talent with the first published book from an author, and to see an author's skills and passion ripen during further work. If you savor a well-turned novel of espionage and moral challenges, THE COLDEST WARRIOR, the third book of espionage fiction from New Yorker Paul Vidich, belongs on your shelf.

Here's the premise: Readers know from the first chapter that Dr. Charles Wilson, a scientist in a high-security government program, became a major security risk in 1953 and was, ahem, enabled to take a plunge from a hotel window high enough above the Washington, DC, streets to kill him at once. But when CIA agent Jack Gabriel approaches retirement from the Office of Inspector General in 1975, twenty-two years later, he's tagged by his superiors to exhume the case and determine what role the Agency played in the death.

Vidich rarely gives much description of a scene or personal appearance, but sketches the interior of a character -- and all his significant ones are men -- deftly and sharply. Jack Gabriel's been drawn to his work by the "cerebral challenge" and the complex problems coupled to high adventure and an urge to fight "the great Cold War against Communism." But his choices are also based in deeper rhythms of moral character:
The call to worldly action had been planted in him by a mother who pushed him to excel in school, who did everything in her power to have him see opportunity beyond the small Midwestern town she hated. ... When young Gabriel arrived in New Haven [for college], he carried a bundle of hundred-dollar bills she had pressed into his hand, a fondness for Shakespeare, an affinity for his mother's Socialism, and a deep skepticism of the rituals of the Catholic Church. The world, he'd been taught to believe, was a dangerous place.
That's a very typical sample of Vidich's writing style, where disclosure comes more from the author's revelatory passages, and less from the situations playing out. In that sense, this author's style differs greatly from the classic work of John Le Carré, who reveals George Smiley's driving forces through his unexpected efforts on behalf of small people: a Russian emigré living in poor housing, a petty criminal who'd lost his beloved to a political betrayal, a retired police officer raising bees. Vidich also walks a very different journey from Olen Steinhauer, whose protagonists bleed from long-ago inner wounds and must rise above their understandable frailty when confronted by political evil-doing.

And the first few chapters of THE COLDEST WARRIOR aren't the greatest quality -- whether from overworking, or hasty rearrangement, or careless editing, it's impossible to know. Yet Vidich soon blooms with powerful moments and short snippets of insight that cut deep: Of one of the antiheroes in this thriller, Phillip Treacher, Vidich exposes Treacher's despair over his relationship with his wife by writing, "He was aware of the first lie he'd told her that Thanksgiving long ago. That deception had metastasized in his soul. He felt more alone than ever."

The halls of power in Washington, DC, shook in the 1970s from Presidential disasters like John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs fiasco, Richard Nixon's Watergate lies and brutality, and the casual use of the CIA to topple international figures. All of this comes through in THE COLDEST WARRIOR, as the threats around Jack Gabriel mount and writhe. The book spins quickly into risk and danger, and the final chapters, fast-paced and dark with threat, provide one of the best manhunt and intended escape sequences of current espionage fiction. One could quibble with the very last scene, a bit soft for a book of such terse "noirish" narrative -- but the heart of the book is so good that it's an important one to grab, read, shelve, and think about. What other moments in our nation's political past may metastasize in its soul? How about in its present season?

Pegasus, part of Norton, published THE COLDEST WARRIOR and released it in February. And of course, this is the year when fine books will falter, due to social distancing and the hum of anxiety across the globe. So order a copy, through a local bookstore's "curbside delivery" or online. You'll want the satisfaction of having read Paul Vidich's work now, when he rises toward the top of this field later.

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