Sunday, May 01, 2016

Cli-Fi Turns Extreme, in KILLING MAINE, Mike Bond

Maine native Mike Bond brought out his second "superthriller" in July 2015, KILLING MAINE. The book's premise is that wind power has not only devastated the wildlife and scenic peaks of the northern New England state -- the big money involved in it has corrupted at least half of Maine's legislature. But Hawaiian/Maine Special Forces veteran Pono (Sam) Hawkins gets a call to rescue a former SF comrade from a frame-up during Maine's winter of discontent, and with the help of three women who want his body, Pono launches into the legal and legislative and bullet-riddled fray.

This chunky oversize paperback clocks in at 364 pages and is jammed with adventure, chase scenes, and hot sex (announced but not detailed). Military jargon and comrades-in-arms (and shared women) cram those pages. Count on a fast pace and a lot of details that are exaggerated past serious belief: Wind power isn't making all that much money, and legislatures aren't so easy to corrupt, and subzero temperatures rarely last as long as the story's hardships suggest. So if you pick this one up, ride along for the entertainment of a wild tale, especially if you enjoy Special Forces fiction. (That includes some coarse language, wild assumptions about women, and plenty of bullet details.)

KILLING MAINE recently won the New England Book Festival First Prize for Fiction, which is why the book is getting fresh attention this spring; the climate crisis and alternate energy aspects are fictionalized as extreme and terrifying, which turns out to support a fast-paced page-turner. Congrats to the author and his team -- and to the publisher, Mandevilla Press, which consists of Mike Bond and Wess Roberts.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Edging Into World War II with Maisie Dobbs in JOURNEY TO MUNICH, Jacqueline Winspear

The first Maisie Dobbs crime-solving mystery launched the former war nurse in her own private investigation business, in 1929 -- in the postwar desperation of bombed-out London and the grim almost-defeated mood of England as a whole. A trained psychologist with strong ties to her mystically inclined and very wise mentor, Maisie steps out of the noted English class system (shh! she was once a servant!!!) into a role connected with both the police and the upper classes.

In JOURNEY TO MUNICH, the 12th in the popular and highly readable series, it's 1938, nine years further away from the war that still haunts Maisie Dobbs. She's already had hints in the meantime that her home country suspects that war with Germany will be inevitable. Now the British government and the American Secret Service collude to send her into enemy territory: the city of Munich, where two missions at once call for her skills—one as agreed with the government, and the other a personal act on behalf of desperate parents.

Jacqueline Winspear sets up the plot to accomplish far more than letting readers apply their hindsight to the growing evil of the Nazi forces. Maisie's official task is to pretend she's the daughter of a British scientist who's been imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp, on the outskirts of the good-time city of Munich. As usual, she exceeds the assignment and delves deeply into the local resistance (portrayed in gritty and heart-pounding detail) in order to rescue this man.

Meanwhile, her effort to persuade a young woman of Canadian parents -- a grown daughter in the family that she blames for her own husband's death! -- increases Maisie's own likelihood of being fingered as a spy and captured, herself. And what game is the American agent playing in the midst of all these risks?

Winspear's readers can expect a top-notch page-turner as this skillful author draws Maisie closer to the very type of wartime conditions that still haunt her from two decades earlier. And although we can't have Maisie's intriguing mentor Maurice Blanche return to us, JOURNEY TO MUNICH demands so much from her that Maisie renews her commitment to Maurice's process of both investigating and protecting her inner integrity and calm. Best to read the other volumes first, to get the most from this one.

We who frame these books in our existing history know that the pace of the series is going to take Maisie into the Second World War, and the tension of that awareness ramps up the stakes in this volume. It's an excellent read, tightly paced, humanely inquisitive, and much deeper than the average page-turner.

If you are reading James Benn or Charles Todd, be sure to keep up with Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series -- for a very different and worthwhile face of British mystery in the fiery glow of the past century's most significant wars.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ghana Mystery, GOLD OF OUR FATHERS, Kwei Quartey

In this fourth in the Darko Dawson investigations (there's also a novella), Darko's just been promoted to Chief Inspector in the Ghana Police Service, which ought to call for celebration -- especially because Darko's own promotion follows that of his cantankerous boss Theophilus Lartey. Readers of the first three books in Ghanaian-American author Kwei Quartey's series -- Wife of the Gods, Children of the Streets, Murder at Three Points -- know that Lartey made things difficult for Darko Dawson and especially for Dawson's family, with frequent assignments away from the family home in Accra, where his wife Christine teaches school and his sons are finally thriving.

But the new Chief Superintendent Oppong, although an unexpectedly tidy and organized man and reasonably kind on the first day of teamwork, has rough news for Darko: a year-long transfer out of headquarters, to take charge of a police station in 160-miles-distant Obuasi where the head officer just died. Considering Ghana's roads and traffic and more, that's not a workable commute. Darko's entire family life will need rearranging, including the care for his more vulnerable son Hosiah.

Even as Darko Dawson's family changes its plans, Darko's racing to his new position, where the discovery of a murder in the muddy terrain of the gold mines brings immediate relief from trying to straighten out backlogged records, lazy staff, and more. It's enough to cheer Dawson up and give him the satisfaction of an urgent investigation of a crime.

GOLD OF OUR FATHERS reveals the power struggles of comparatively wealthy mine owners and a labor force of people who have little control over their lives. But it also portrays in a tender fashion the customs, traditions, and linguistic dances of Ghanaian life, from the finger snapping that accompanies a handshake, to traditional foods and courtesies. Plus in today's Ghana, the presence of the Chinese -- as both land investors and working people -- challenges the local ways of life. In his new position, Darko Dawson has little leverage and no quick way to his staff's needed loyalty. Good thing he figures out how to pull his former assistant from Accra to come help for a while!

Meanwhile, in this new location, the Chief Inspector confronts many temptations and bad practices that his Accra post no longer offered him, from bribes to an informant being beaten and, most dangerous for Darko Dawson, the frank interest of an intelligent woman, journalist Akua Helmsley:
"Chief Inspector," she said. "We meet again."

"And I'm sure not for the last time," he said, barely slowing his pace as he walked by, but she kept up with him.

"Progress?" she asked.

"Not much. ... The legal status of miners isn't my concern, Miss Helmsley."

Obeng got in the back seat with Wei.

"So, no prime suspect so far," Helmsley said. "Where are you going now?"

"To make some inquiries," Dawson said unhelpfully as he got into the front passenger seat.

"I'll check back with you in a couple of days," Helmsley said. "Is that okay?"

"Yes," Dawson replied, not sure he meant it.
The journalist clearly has a role in the pattern of crimes Dawson's investigating. But was she an innocent party? An instigator, creating news by pushing people toward confrontation? Or an investigator herself -- and if so, an honest one, or corrupt?

The layers and tangles add to Quartey's adept storytelling and make this a well-paced and intriguing crime investigation with significant human costs and caring. I'm enjoying the series very much -- if you haven't yet read the others, though, Quartey makes it easy to step into this fourth novel "cold" and get close to Dawson and his team.

GOLD OF OUR FATHERS is a police procedural with the twist of how policing struggles in an underdeveloped nation that's suffered the colonial boot and then desertion, open to the money and power of foreign corporations and individuals. So although the scenery and family conflicts may call to mind the gentle frictions of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, Quartey's books are closer in texture to, say, Archer Mayor's or William Kent Krueger's -- add them to your contemporary mysteries shelf, with the fresh spice of international flavor. Available now, from Soho Crime -- of course!


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Reviews Coming Thursday: Kwei Quartey, Mike Bond, Jacqueline Winspear

Excited to have three reviews to share on Thursday April 28 -- I wish I could share them today, but other deadlines have crashed through the week.

GOLD OF OUR FATHERS from Kwei Quartey is the fourth Darko Dawson mystery (fifth if you count the novella from 2013), set in Ghana, and confirms that the magic behind a really good mystery is the tension that crime and crimesolving place in the life of an important character.

KILLING MAINE from Mike Bond came out in 2015 and just won the New England Book Festival First Prize for Fiction -- lots of things to enjoy here, including the "buddies from Special forces" aspect and a focus on environmental risk.

And every Jacqueline Winspear novel of Maisie Dobbs is a great excuse to kick back and immerse in the story, and in JOURNEY TO MUNICH this World War I-related series reaches the terrifying start of the Second World War.

Check back in on Thursday afternoon. Sorry to keep you waiting!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Superb Hollywood Crime Caper, in KING MAYBE, Junior Bender

To me, there's only one king of the caper novel in crime fiction: the late, great Donald Westlake. Sure, Dave Zeltserman tied up the modern "noir" caper a few years ago. Rory Flynn's carving out Boston space for his, if not quite so cheerfully. And there are regional gems like Carl Hiassen's Florida titles and the Texas ones by Kinky Friedman.

But Westlake's gift was a combination of exquisite timing (the kind a good comedian has to have) and a willingness to show that criminals can be ordinary dumb bunnies like the guy next door. Beyond that aspect of his caper novels, Westlake also revealed, in a short early series of his under the pen name Tucker Coe, that he understood heartbreak, male style, and could write it with precision and a sharp blade of a pen (or typewriter key). Even though he ended that series before his career soared, the revelation insisted on slipping into his hard-working and often-failing criminals in the rest of his work.

Timothy Hallinan hasn't used the same sort of sleight of hand. His Bangkok series featuring Poke Rafferty rose steadily into a portrait of how a "family of choice" can form and be nurtured; the biggest risks Poke takes, he takes for the sake of the people he cares about.

So when Hallinan segued into the Junior Bender series (which despite the character's name is emphatically NOT "young adult"), he took that emotional dynamic directly into the life of his exquisitely skilled, art-expert, house burglar in Hollywood, Junior Bender. Bender is in many ways clueless about how relationships work -- but he chooses phenomenal women who, if he can manage to let them, not only put up with his gaffes but also teach him how to treat a smart, wise, savvy woman ... like his ex-wife, his teenage daughter, and his current girlfriend, who's so careful not to fully trust him that he's not even sure he knows her real name.

Good thing Junior stumbled into those liaisons, because the heist he's attempting at the opening of KING MAYBE (Junior Bender #5, from Soho Crime) goes wrong so fast and so hard that he'd be a bloody battered corpse, were it not for the rapid response of his ladyfriend (and getaway driver) Ronnie. And it's only Ronnie who can keep calm enough to sort out what's pushing the disasters into place, as Junior holds an incredibly valuable postage stamp in his hands while at least three people try to kill him. Even Stinky, who hired him:
Stinky ... settled his weight farther back in the seat, which made the car dip. "As you should know from recent experience, Junior, when I want to kill you, I'll hire someone to shoot you."

"Like that other man just did," Ronnie said.

Stinky said, "What other man?"

I said, "Never mind."

"And you thought," Ronnie said serenely to Stinky, "that they caught Junior in the act, as people say, and he told them you sent him, and they said, 'Well, all right, then, thanks, here you go,' and gave him the stamp as a reward and came after you."

"Well," Stinky said, "when you put it that  way -- "

"I said the exact same thing," I told him. "When she reacted to my theory. Word for word."

... "Both of you," she said. "You're hopeless."
Hallinan braids a very believable sort of triple betrayal into the plot, while at the same time leaving it to Junior and his two tech-genius teen crime associates (who aren't supposed to be doing that any more) to figure out how to salvage his own daughter's dating life and upcoming birthday party.

I laughed my way through this enjoyable adventure, and if only crime could be this rewarding (in the long run), I might have suggested it to a few other people looking for themselves, like Junior has been. But then again, Junior Bender's Hollywood career is just fiction. ... I think!

Thanks, Tim Hallinan, for great entertainment and the best of twists and conclusions. And PS -- I wish Donald Westlake could be reading your books now.

THE MASK, Taylor Stevens (Vanessa Michael Munroe #6)

There are some mystery authors -- maybe a dozen, maybe a few more than that -- whose books I follow from one release to the next, making sure I get a copy of each new title when it's published. But because I am 95 percent sure I'll enjoy those books (and also that the authors don't "need" my attention at the time of release ... they are already pretty well know), I don't race to open the covers. I wait until I can enjoy them at their own best pace.

So last week I indulged in reading THE MASK, which is the sixth book featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe. Call her Munroe, secret agent style ... or call her Michael, which is what her long-term lover Miles Bradford knows she calls herself. Slight of build, able to adeptly disguise herself as a young man as needed, Michael is also a very dangerous killer when in jeopardy.

Her reunion with Miles at the start of this book marks the end of a long period of recovery for Munroe. Her teammates in a private company based in the United States valued her for her multiple languages and her ability to unravel codes and intrigues of astounding complexity. But her path's been dangerous not just to herself but also to her friends. It's been a long time since she dared to be geographically close to even Miles Bradford, even though she has longed for the comfort of being with the one person who's ever really accepted her in all her emotionally scarred integrity.

Stevens, diverging in rare one-sentence hints from Munroe's viewpoint, hints to readers that the tender and amazing reunion of the lovers, in Japan of all places, isn't the honest coupling it appears. Munroe's tendency to blame herself for the hint of awkwardness, and for the puzzle of Miles not inviting her into his work in a Japanese biotech company, distorts her vision for long enough to ramp up the danger and risk involved. In perhaps the book's most bizarre yet also insightful twist, when Munroe has to turn professional to help Miles, she insists on being paid Big Bucks by their security company -- something the company leader back in the States finds despicable. Still, for the person Munroe is, and for the highly unlikely face that she can indeed love Miles, it's a necessary transformation of the emotional ground -- taking her out of the shoes of a woman desperate to save her beloved, and giving her instead the equivalent of steel-toed boots and a highly technical construction to pull together.

If you appreciate the powerful darkness of Karen Slaughter's crime fiction, this is for you; it's also the closest there is to a woman's version of Jack Reacher from Lee Child's books, although Munroe is more self-aware and gives herself a different skill set. But that pressure to set things right, and to undo injustice, is spot on target.

Curious about the title? No, it's not a reference to kinky sex, but rather to the way some people choose to protect their vulnerabilities -- and also, I think, to the willingness of many a Westerner to continue to buy the myth of the inscrutable Asian face. By the end of THE MASK, I also knew a bit more about myself. Which, come to think of it, may be the highest achievement for any book worth reading.

If you're new to Taylor Stevens, take a few minutes to explore her author website before you dip into the books. Yes, I think there's more depth in this book if you've read the other five, but you don't have to. On the other hand, after you read THE MASK, you may decide, as I have, that you want them all.

Friday, April 08, 2016

DELIVERING THE TRUTH, Edith Maxwell, A Clever Mystery With Insight

Quaker life, and the tender mysteries of childbirth: In DELIVERING THE TRUTH, Massachusetts author Edith Maxwell selects two areas that are intensely private, and in that choice she promises us secrets ... secrets to witness, to explore, and to reveal the human failings that lead to crime.

There have been other Quaker mysteries, of course, but Maxwell sets her new series (she has three others already spinning!) in the 1880s in the close-knit and prosperous town of Amesbury, Massachusetts, where several businesses manufacture carriages. Those complicated creations -- wheels, springs, issues of comfort for traveler and horse, and above all, stylish decor -- fuel the town's growth and keep its families well fed. So when sudden flames destroys a large carriage factory, also killing a dozen men trapped there, it's hard to find anyone untouched by the disaster.

Midwife Rose Carroll, slowly growing her one-woman business with integrity, medical care for mother and baby, and wisdom gained day by day, collides with this wave of grief and loss at a painful level. Although her own small family -- the brother-in-law and nieces and nephews, whose home includes an office that she uses for her midwifery, as she also assists with her dead sister's children -- takes no direct hit from the fire, their closest friends lose work and even loved ones. And Rose herself is still hurting from her own sister's recent death.

Almost immediately, Rose realizes she has observations that may assist the investigation into what's soon declared arson. She's seen a possible suspect right before the fire; she knows, because of her woman-centered work, at least one of the illicit ties in town that involve married men; and soon the police are even asking her to quietly seek answers and report to them on the inner workings of family in the town.

And it's not just her midwifery that makes her a candidate for a careful and observant sleuth: It's also her religious identity as a Quaker -- one of the Society of Friends -- where integrity matters as much as a willingness to wait for divine direction and guidance, and where silence is more common than gossip.

Maxwell's mystery has the hallmarks of a classic in historical fiction, and the softer side of crime investigation that is braided along with such a setting. As in many a "cozy," when death arrives, it does so discreetly, without graphic gore or agony, other than the emotional forces of grief, envy, despair -- the aspects that are seen via the insight and "Light" for which Rose Carroll wishes to be known. But to her shock, one of the deaths in this small-town catastrophe is linked to an item from her own bag that she carries to births: an item shown to her with dried blood on it.
"Is that your knitting needle, Rose Carroll?"

"Yes. It's one of a pair my mother painted for me as a birthday present." I closed my mouth and sat with my hands clenched in my lap. This was the murder weapon ... This was too awful to contemplate. But I had to. I forced myself to unclench my hands.

Kevin regarding me say in silence, as well. I'd read of this tactic in a serial novel, this silent treatment that was usually effective to prod guilty parties to talk. But I was a Quaker. I'd had a lifetime of sitting in silence. And I was guilty of nothing.
Rose's ability to sustain silence, along with her stiff backbone and refusal to bend away from the teachings of her religion, make her a prickly character. She's being courted by a doctor, and open to the courting, although the religious difference involved is rapidly becoming an issue. She's tough, and resolute, and clever.

All of this makes her sleuthing effective and often, for her, very painful emotionally. The cost of looking with clear eyes at the failings of others is high. And her self-judgment is at least as painful.

So DELIVERING THE TRUTH doesn't have the sweet side that many a cozy provides. Moving steadily from one clue to the next, one hypothesis to another, and seeking advice from Quaker leader and noted poet John Greenleaf Whittier, as well as from an older midwife who'd trained her, Rose epitomizes the calm and unyielding focus of, say, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, but with more personal cost and risk.

Maxwell has already shown her skill in building series characters and confrontations, so that her Local Foods series is deepening nicely and her Country Store mysteries provide another lively and warm community; DELIVERING THE TRUTH is subtitled "A Quaker Midwife Mystery" but also is signaled on her website as a "Carriagetown Mystery." So that makes three strong reasons to pick up a copy of this new mystery, released today in bookstores and online: (1) for the intrigue of learning about life within the 1880s Quaker community (Maxwell herself is also a member of the Society of Friends, in a nearby town); (2) for the persistent sense of awe and discovery and human risk that midwife stories by their nature enfold; and (3) to be able to follow this series in its debut and growth.

From the profound magic of childbirth to the personal horror of discovering a death and a killer, midwife Rose Carroll offers a clear-eyed gaze at the complicated lives we sustain. I think this is going to be a series that's both clever and insightful -- and DELIVERING THE TRUTH is a strong and enjoyable start.

[From mystery specialty publisher Midnight Ink.]

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Bank Robbery, Scandinavian Style, in THE FATHER, Anton Svensson

John Dillinger, Jesse James, and Bonnie and Clyde may be America's most famous bank robbers -- but there was also Ma Barker, whose family formed the notorious Barker-Karpis gang, a ruthless group of three core members and some 20 others, and whose exploits spanned the Depression Era.

In Sweden, a string of bank robberies in the 1990s literally paralyzed commerce, as banks came to actually expect another violent attack from the team known as the Military Gang. Consider it Sweden's modern version of Ma Barker's gang. THE FATHER, the debut effort by "Anton Svensson," is the first of a two-book series that turns those robberies and the family behind them into compelling suspense fiction.

THE FATHER opens with an attack witness by sons Leo, Vincent, and Felix, as their brutal father returns after four years and batters their mother. For young Leo, struggling to both embrace his papa and stop papa's fists from pounding Mamma, the action is terrifying and confusing, and abruptly turned by his father into an object lesson in what it is to be a man.
Leo keeps hold of him, his arms around his father's waist, and leans into his body, as if he were still hugging him.

"It's your turn now, Leonard."

The smell of blood, spaghetti and meat sauce, and Mamma's blood. They look at each other.

"Do you understand? I won't be around any more, not here. You're responsible from now on."
And so this boy, oldest of the three but still heart-breakingly young, begins the confusing process of becoming a man as violent and powerful as his father. One who will, given the right plan and weapons, lead a set of crimes designed to make him rich and to terrorize Sweden.

THE FATHER is a powerful work of fiction, sweeping through years as Leo forges his team of brothers -- and one friend pulled into the group as well -- into an instrument able to commit the perfect robbery. By the time things go out of control, Leo is hooked on the addiction of increasingly violent and masterful crime, and can't seem to stop.

But the book's title beats the throb of drums under all of the action, because everything Leo puts together is a result of the "manning up" his father has taught him. And astute readers will see ahead into the catastrophes of his life far sooner than he can, as his father begins, after all this time, to seek a relationship with his son.

Although the book is the debut for "Anton Svensson," the author back-story is at least as complex as the novel itself: The pseudonym represents co-authors Stefan Thunberg and Anders Roslund. Thunberg is, in real life, the fourth brother of the actual notorious bank-robbing family, the brother who escaped the pattern and went to art school. Roslund's name should be familiar to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, as he wrote for 14 years with Börge Hellström, creating the Roslund & Hellström author tag for award-winning Swedish crime fiction. When the Thunberg and Roslund met, they keyed into a new craft partnership -- writing a book that's neither "true crime" nor "crime fiction" but an entirely new hybrid. (The author website is layered and fascinating, by the way.)

THE FATHER is dark and often violent, but (thank goodness) stays out of the more perverse areas of crime fiction (not a sex crimes book, for example, and no gruesome games with corpses). I found it expertly paced, and the "dramatic" additions the authors made to shape the story are effective and memorable. The adept combination of narrative and inner revelation of how violence is forged in the soul is fascinating.

And for readers who become engaged with the fates of the dangerous men in THE FATHER -- a second book is on the way. The book's subtitle is MADE IN SWEDEN: PART I. It was released in Europe in August 2015, and released in the US this week; at a guess, the second volume may be a year or so away. Published by Quercus; pick up a copy of THE FATHER while the first US printings are still available.