Sunday, August 28, 2016

Very, Very Dark: HELL FIRE, from Karin Fossum

HELL FIRE is the 12th in Karin Fossum's Inspector Sejer series, and it's grim, violent, and graphic. That said, it's also insightful and precise in its language and imagery, and I'm always willing to read another by Fossum ... but also always depressed afterward. There are no happy endings in this series.

The frame is a double story of single parenting in Norway. One is the daily struggle of caregiver Bonnie Hayden, whose heart breaks a little bit each time she has to leave her crying five-year-old at day care. The other is Mass Malthe, raising a boy with obvious "issues" around food, cruelty, and power. In a relentless double spiral, Fossum entwines the two sets of lives. Those who read crime fiction regularly will have no doubt about who's done what, from very early in the book. What Fossum does though that keeps the book compelling and the pages turning is show the navigation of ordinary lives and the tiny changes of direction that eventually create a horrifying collision.

In that sense, this is a literary novel rather than a genre page-turner. I'd hesitate to hand it to anyone who's not already a Fossum fan, though; it's darker than night, with few guiding stars, and even the kindly and wounded Inspector Sejer won't come out of this one with the same soul that he brought into it.

From HMH Books, with an August 30 release.

For other reviews, click here.

Nordic Noir: Gunnar Staalesen, WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE

What a great discovery! This is the first time I've read a crime novel by Norwegian Gunnar Staalesen, and I'm really late finding his work ... he's written more than 20 titles, most significantly his series featuring detective Varg Veum, which began back in 1977.

Veum is a classic disillusioned private investigator, and at the opening of WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE he's completing a three-year binge of alcohol and self-pity relating to the death of his (female) partner, which is never fully explained here (I will have to get some of the earlier books, to find out more). And he's not in the mood to take any case that might improve his self-esteem; he's been "working" at lower and lower levels, taking assignments that can be done drunk.

But the mother who walks into his office has a plea he finds hard to resist: Her three-year-old daughter's case, a kidnapping from almost 25 years ago, is about to hit the statute of limitations, and no perpetrator was ever found -- nor was the child. Little Mette is still the center of her mother's life, and Maja, the mom, wants the case properly solved at last. Why Veum, of all people, to solve it? Well, he had solved another unrelated case of a missing child from the 1970s. And as he begins to realize he's going to take the case, he confronts a very large hurdle: getting sober enough to do this.

The dark cover of the book actually kept me from reading it for a while, so I was relieved to discover that despite the image, WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE does not contain child abuse in any of the gruesome sexually perverse modes that are currently in vogue (I hope desperately that the real world contains less of such crime than the fictional one). Instead, it's in some ways a traditional PI investigation, with some intriguing twists. For one thing, the child and her family lived in a somewhat quirky five-family environmental project, one of those miniature communes created in an attempt to use land more wisely and kindly. For another, one of the adults who lived there at the time Mette was kidnapped (and killled? it seems likely) was just shot to death in a jewelry-store robbery. There's no obvious connection, but the death has shaken Mette's mother out of her own lethargy, into pressing Veum for answers.

Although the book's blurbs refer to sharp teeth, darkness, and brutality, I found instead that Staalesen's expert storytelling tested and tasted the forms of love and commitment, along with what can go wrong inside well-meaning families. I enjoyed it a lot -- and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who enjoys a moderately dark but very humane mystery. Not for kids, but a thoughtful book that probes what it is to be an adult in a close community, and the value of trust.

Oh, if you've been reading Scandinavian noir: This is not as dark as most, despite the cover. I'd compare it more to the British crime fiction of, say, Ruth Rendell, or Colin Dexter. Good stuff, from Orenda Books via Trafalgar Square Publishing (release date Sept. 1).

New from Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins: A LONG TIME DEAD

Actually, Max Allan Collins is very much alive -- and even Golden Age crime fiction author Mickey Spillane has only been dead for a decade (he lived from 1918 to 2006). Instead, the title for this delightful eight-story collection comes from one of the tales included. And they all have that great Spillane flavor: like "The Big Switch," "Fallout," and "So Long, Chief." A LONG TIME DEAD comes out on September 6 from Mysterious Press, and it's well worth pre-ordering.

Spillane was the creator of Mike Hammer, a detective whose style is closer to gangland than to cop, even though his buddy Captain Pat Chambers will most likely help him cover up the seamy side of his crimesolving. Hammer has a little issue that today would disqualify him totally for that PI license (or "tag" as he calls it): He tends to shoot the bad guys dead, once he's established that they're at fault. He hardly ever means to do it, but most often he confronts someone who pulls a gun on him, and the only way to stop his opponent's trigger finger from aggression is if Hammer's own immediate shot blows out the brain network of the criminal. See?

If you don't see that, don't worry -- you have plenty of time to catch on, as story after story goes in that direction. Even so, the diversity among these is wide and enjoyable. It's also fun to realize that Collins, a master of crime fiction himself and a superb collaborator, has taken the left-behind beginnings of Spillane's abandoned shorter works and built them into full-fledged tales. I found it fascinating in each one to guess at what part had been Spillane's and what part Collins erected on the foundations. What's never in doubt, though, is Mike Hammer's adoration of his smart and sassy secretary/partner Velda, and his blunt assessment of a situation:
You don't need doctors or coroners or medical examiners to tell you when somebody is dead. Not this kind of dead. You say, "Shit," because you knew this dead somebody and he was a great old guy who was your friend. And because he was your friend, you are the reason he is stuffed inside a wooden crate with bullet holes in him.
In a long introduction, Collins explains how all this came to pass, and the long close friendship he'd had with Spillane. One tale, "Grave Matter," he says he wrote mostly himself; another, "Skin," brings us the aging detective and his attempt to straighten out his crimefighting style, along with some updates in technology (not really the 'Net, but at least cell phones).

Fond of the Golden Age classics? Treat yourself to this collection. It's almost like being there, all over again.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hard-Boiled Crime from Bill Loehfelm: LET THE DEVIL OUT


When another reviewer's comments made me itch to read LET THE DEVIL OUT by Bill Loehfelm, I realized it was the fourth in the series featuring Maureen Coughlin, and I hadn't read any yet ... in fact, somehow I missed even hearing about Bill Loehfelm. I'm glad I've caught up with his crime fiction, though, starting with the first in the series, The Devil She Knows.

Maureen Coughlin at this opening looks like she's already sliding downhill fast in life: waitressing in her second Staten Island bar, making poor choices, and stringing herself along by balancing her ups and downs with booze and cocaine. The apparent suicide of the bar owner arrives in parallel with invasive and terrifying threats to Maureen herself, and soon she's sure she's been a witness to part of a criminal operation, embedded in city politics and of course money and power.

Making bad choices includes, in this case, trying to chase the head of the criminal operation herself. Maureen's effort to confront the face of evil puts her into far more danger; The Devil She Knows is downright scary to read, while at the same time almost impossible to put down. Those decisions are only a hair's distance from ones we've all considered at some point, and we're just better protected, less foolhardy, probably less brave than Maureen Coughlin.

When I plunged into this summer's release of LET THE DEVIL OUT, I'd skipped the second and third titles, The Devil in Her Way and Doing the Devil's Work, but Loehfelm brushes the important changes into the fourth book swiftly and effectively. Maureen's now an rookie officer with the New Orleans Police Department, carrying her wounds as impetus for a crime-solving career. She's "Coughlin" or OC, for Officer Coughlin, to most around her.

But at this point, Maureen Coughlin is also Seriously Messed Up. Tossed aside for six weeks of forced leave because of actions she'd taken against a crooked fellow cop, she's back to abusing drugs and has a new obsession: Let's call it a nasty form of vigilante action. "Instead of going home like she should have, she had restarted that night's mission." It made her feel alive, and in control, and more: an almost sexual sense of complete exhilaration. And she knows it's a terrible mistake.
So wise of you, Maureen. Every step of the way. You're letting him burn you down, she thought, from beyond the grave. After everything you did to get away from him.

How stupid can you be?
The death of a young woman Maureen's been trying to locate, the murderously disturbed Madison Leary, pulls Maureen back into official action. Looks like the Klan's form of evil has resurfaced in New Orleans with a group called The Watchmen, and soon Maureen makes herself a target. Her inner demons make it all extra dangerous. I was frankly appalled at how much risk she pulled toward herself, and how much anger and pain she carried ... but also recognized the situation as true enough to life.

What impresses me most in LET THE DEVIL OUT is Loehfelm's deft portrayal of what it costs to make a decision to change -- to exorcise the demons that drive us. Every move Maureen makes carries a price, and she is excruciatingly aware of that mathematics of pain. Loehfelm's laying out of the choices she confronts is engrossing, compelling ... an American version of Lisbeth Salander's journey, with considerably more hope allowed to tug at the readers. A must-read, and exactly the right balance of hard-boiled and self-revealing.

THE DARKNESS KNOWS, Cheryl Honigford: 1938 Radio Drama in Lively Traditional Mystery

It only took me a few pages to realize that the title of Cheryl Honigford's debut mystery, THE DARKNESS KNOWS, is a play on the old-time radio drama called "The Shadow Knows." But I was too busy turning the pages to find out what would happen next to rising radio starlet Vivian Witchell to think more about that part!

Scrappy, courageous, and determined to prove herself not just in the working world but also to her skeptical (and wealthy) mother, Vivian recently made the leap from secretary to dramatic reader of multiple parts, in multiple radio series. It's 1938 and far away from any feminist revolution -- Viv's the target already of another woman's greed for the drama parts, and unsure which of the men around her can be trusted not to take advantage of her. A killing at the start of the book puts this classic traditional mystery into high gear right away. Lucky for Viv, she makes the quick decision to hire a private detective to work for her and protect her from both the killer and in-house threats.

Turns out PI Charlie Haverman is a lot like Viv in some ways, pulling himself up from the bottom and mostly taking the high road. But Viv's attraction toward him actually makes her more wary in terms of trusting him (great to have a sensible and smart protagonist here!). Her boss, Mr. Hart, isn't playing fairly, either:
"Were you here when it ... it happened? Did you see anything -- the person that could have done this?" Vivian glanced at the ashtray on his desk where the remnants of something still smoldered. That wasn't cigar smoke in the air.

"I was working late, but I didn't notice anything unusual." He turned from the window briefly to glance at her, then turned back before adding, "Until I heard you scream, that is."

Vivian felt the color drain from her face as the image  of Marjorie's dead body popped into her mind. She didn't remember screaming.

"Do you need anything?" she asked. ... "A drink?" When he didn't answer, she continued in a small voice, "I'll just go out and see if I can be of help to the police then, shall I?"

Mr. Hart grunted. "Yes, go see what you can do." He turned to look at her and attempted a smile.
Honigford salts her story with just the right amount of 1930s expressions and issues to make it enjoyable, while laying out a well-plotted "whodunnit" for contemporary readers to enjoy. It's clear this is the start of a series, and I look forward to more! Published by Sourcebooks, as an August release.

Suspicious Airplane Crash, Feisty Investigative Reporter: FREE FALL from Rick Mofina Hits the Thriller Buttons

Rick Mofina's FREE FALL is the fourth in his Kate Page series (1, Whirlwind; 2, Full Tilt; 3, Every Second; 4. Free Fall), and should absolutely not be read during high-speed travel!

With 18 books under his belt, Mofina's a pro at pacing his thrillers and picking out the areas where readers will echo the disturbance and mounting fear in the story, thanks to ordinary experiences we've all had: hearing the airplane captain talk about oncoming turbulence, reading a report of a bus with mechanical malfunctions, realizing how rapidly today's trains take the curves of the tracks.

This time, Mofina places journalist Kate Page in a frightening position personally as well: A hostile internal takeover of the newsroom at the paper where she works is threatening her reputation and her job. When Kate hears the police scanner report a jet landing with a mysterious malfunction, she almost gets the entire story stolen from her. Malicious colleagues want her slot. She knows darn well she's good -- and that she's given a piece of her soul to each major story and the victims she's interviewed. Can she be forced out?

Luckily, the just-in-time return to Newslead of a former boss who knows Kate's skills gives her a chance to jump back into the story. Her investigations soon have her chasing across the country to pull together tips, interviews, and enormous possibilities, in collaboration with the very worried FBI agents on the case.

Mofina's pace is rapid, and FREE FALL reads best if it's not interrupted often. His writing has earned praise from Michael Connelly and Tess Gerritsen, although it differs from both of these -- closer to an early James Patterson. No need to read the books in sequence, although, as always, it's a good way to appreciate a character's growth (and the author's). This one is from MIRA; Mofina is himself a former crime reporter, and I'm betting he has a dozen or more plots already spinning for sequels!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Corruption in the Oil Industry and Land Deals Speeds Paul E. Hardisty's Thrillers to the Top

Things keep changing in the global publishing arena. Orenda Books is a relatively new British publisher, carried in the US by Trafalgar Square Publishing at the Independent Publishers Group. When a copy of Paul E. Hardisty's second thriller, THE EVOLUTION OF FEAR, came my way via IPG, the distributor noted that Hardisty's first novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, climbed onto the Crime Writers Association (CWA) charts right away: short-listed for the 2015 John Creasey "New Blood" dagger.

So of course, I picked up the first book, first.

Here's the situation as The Abrupt Physics of Dying opens: Claymore Straker's been working as an oil company engineer for a company of questionable ethics, in Yemen. His job is to conduct surveys of oil locations, present and future, and collect the test results for the company, while at the same time assuring the local people that the company only means to bring them good things: money, schools, a hospital even. He's been lying for his clients for so long that it doesn't bother him much.

But he has a vulnerability: He cares about his local driver and close friend Abdulkader. When a rebel leader named Al Shams captures Clay and Abdulkader, there's only one deal on the table: Clay must visit more of the sites being poisoned, take samples that prove it's from the oil operations, and get that information to the company leadership with a message from Al Shams: "All that is within this land is a gift from God to those who have lived here since before the prophet." Abdulkader's life depends on Clay completing this mission by a deadline that Al Shams sets:
"My people are dying. Your oil is killing them. What you must ask yourself, Mister Claymore, is if you care. ... I am giving you an opportunity, my friend, to find what you have lost."
But the oil company's corrupt -- well, Clay knew that, in a way -- and although its environmental effects are actually far worse than Clay realized, his efforts to make the leadership listen fall on deaf ears. Receiving Abdulkadar's severed hand in a package confirms that the deadline was intended, real, and fierce.

But that doesn't stop Clay's awakened conscience from driving him to fight for the Yemeni people, now that he's reawakened to caring about the land and the individuals. In The Abrupt Physics of Dying, his math and science skills are of little avail when he finds he's on the wrong side of both Yemen's secret service and the CIA.

The book's bloody and fearsome ending reshapes Clay Straker into an international race to escape being framed, in THE EVOLUTION OF FEAR. There's a woman he's begun to care about also, across barriers of ethnicity, religion, and motives. This time, it's not just the CIA on his tail: The Russian mafia, Greek Cypriots, and Turkish land developers have surrounded the woman in her role as a powerful journalist, and once again, Clay's struggling to free someone he cares about from a hostage situation. Even if he succeeds, will she accept him as lover and friend -- or push him away, symbol of the oppressive money forces operating around her. What must he give up, to maintain Rania's safety and his own sense of integrity? He struggles to understand:

"Justice isn't an event, she'd said. It isn't something you do once. There is no end to it. Forgiveness, you earn."

I have complete confidence that Paul E. Hardisty -- whose bio is outrageously interesting and laced with risk -- will carry this series forward. Consider me eagerly waiting for the next Clay Straker adventure, with its suspense and moral conflicts, as well as highly memorable characters and situations. Good stuff.

Yes, these deserve reading in sequence. Both are available via the usual sources, thanks to Trafalgar's adept US distribution.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Colin Cotterill's 14th Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery, I SHOT THE BUDDHA

This time of year is perfect for curling up with an entertaining sort of mystery -- not too dark, not too serious, and yet full of adventure and fun. In other words, it's time to welcome I SHOT THE BUDDHA, as Colin Cotterill spins his 14th mystery of Dr. Siri Paiboun and friends, muddling through retirement, political chaos, and crime in Laos.

Cotterill provides a caution at the front of the book:
A mental health warning. Through necessity this edition is heavily spiced with supernatural elements. For those of you who prefer your mysteries dull and earthly, this is not the tome for you. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Cotterill might as well have also warned: Get ready to laugh, a lot. At least, I did ... Chapter 2 opens in the 1970s, as usual, with the aging (retired coroner) Dr. Siri and his noodle-cooking wife Madam Daeng attending a Communist Party seminar that condemns the pagan rituals of spirit worship. That could be seen as a poor match for the couple: Dr. Siri's struggle with the spirits that live in and around him now has him vanishing from time to time, without warning. And Madam Daeng's recent cure for arthritis left her with a small but presumable waggable tail. Add to this, later the same day, police inspector Phosy and his wife Nurse Dtui, and Dr. Siri's good friend Civilai Songsawat, a former politboro member. The good friends' enjoyment of another superb noodle dinner gets interrupted as Sirit shares the latest news of a Thai forest monk who's been living in Siri's official government residence with other homeless people (Siri's idea).

All of that's fine -- the problem is, the monk, Noo, appears to have been kidnapped. And he's left Siri a mission to complete for him that will involve crossing the border illicitly into Thailand.

Within a few more pages, all three friends -- Siri, Phosy, and Civilai -- have taken off, with their usual traveling companions, to try to solve various parts of Noo's disappearance and cope with the mission. And each one confronts questions about politics, religion, and mortality in his own inimitable way. Which is to say: with all the eccentricity of old friends who do things their own way. Spirit guides included.

Cotterill must have chuckled all the way through writing this one. Siri pulls off some great distractions of other police officers as needed ("Well, comrade," said Siri, "you know you can't hurry an eighty-year-old bladder) and wrestles with his spirit quandary, which turns out to be oddly linked to the crime he investigates. Civilai and Phosy keep in touch with him in odd ways. Even the dog Ugly turns out to have a useful role, and there are at least two forms of exorcism along the way, booting out evil and rescuing the good.

Ride along with the fun, and all the crimes and their solutions will make sense by the end of the book. But I'm still shaking my head over the wry insights on spirit and religion that Cotterill's characters dispense through the pages.

No, you don't "have to" read any earlier Dr. Siri investigations before you read this one -- but consider the author's warning and be aware that the charm and quirkiness of the early books in this wonderful series have now escalated to marvelously ridiculous (and hence quite deep!) adventures, discoveries, and friendship. (It will also help if you know the saying about what to do if you meet the Buddha along the road. It has nothing to do with the story, but it will keep you guessing in enjoyable ways.)

To browse some other reviews of Cotterill's tales, click here.

From Soho Crime, host to a range of international crime fiction that boggles the imagination in all the best ways.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

One "Thriller," Two Views: If You're Interested in Comparing Reviews of Nakamura's Latest Noir

Today's New York Times Book Review section is crammed with "thriller" reviews. I'm not convinced about the label -- some of the reviews in here are standard-genre mysteries, to my way of thinking -- but I surely enjoyed spending my Sunday morning browsing the opinions expressed, including a review by Lee Child (!). Fun idea for a summer surprise issue.

When I'm considering writing about a mystery, I almost never look at any reviews before I've written my own. And afterward, of course, I'm usually on my way to the next book, so there isn't time to compare. But I noticed this review by author Jan Stuart of Fuminori Nakamura's newest Japanese noir, The Kingdom, which I'd already reviewed back in early June, so I took time to think about the difference in review approaches.

Stuart focuses on summarizing the plot of the book but doesn't seem to much like it. (Look at the last line of that review, in particular: "Much like its alternately victimized and victimizing antiheroine, “The Kingdom” pins the reader in the cross hairs of bullets and bombast.")

I wasn't happy about reading Nakamura's work at first, and if it hadn't been brought to the American market by one of my favorite publishers, Soho Press, I probably would not have persevered. But with time, and having read several by now, I've decided that for me, Nakamura's fiction confronts global violence in necessary ways. The Gun is his most obvious effort at this, but The Kingdom also fingers personal violence, the kind that's manipulative and mean and even the verbal kind that we associate with bullies and sometimes politics.

Because I write "historically hinged" fiction myself, I read a lot of scholarly history -- and then enjoy diverting into really good historical fiction, where the action comes alive and the crises are emotional. In the same way, in an era when crime haunts all news channels and Presidential campaigns, it's a treat to dip into the emotionally potent storytelling of Nakamura's books. Count me in for the next one, too.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Great New PI Mystery from D.P. Lyle, DEEP SIX, an Alabama Case

With a publisher name like Oceanview, it's easy to suspect the new detective title from D.P. Lyle might be set in Florida -- but no, even better, it's on Alabama's Gulf Coast and it's a lively investigation laced with both humor and danger.

And expertise! D.P. Lyle isn't just an award-winning author of crime fiction. He's also a forensics expert consulting for the top TV crime shows and is the expert I'd most like to know was coming to a crime-novel dinner party, because he's quick to correct the scenes and the reasoning. In other words, his firearms and 'tec services make sense. Thank goodness!

But who knew (from that background) that he could also be so entertaining? Well, the truth is, although I take note of his forensic pointers regularly, this is the first time I've read one of his crime novels ... and I'm going to have to gather up some of the others soon. There are already three series (see Lyle's website) and DEEP SIX launches the fourth.

Jake Longly is a former pro baseball player, and the last thing he wants to do is work in the family business, private investigations, for his dad Ray. But he's not above taking an occasional surveillance job for a bit of cash flow. Unfortunately, checking on a possible womanizer for his father's caseload puts Jake into the neighborhood of his suspicious and assaultive ex, who's good with a baseball bat. Escape from the situation takes Jake and his classic car directly into the circle of a gorgeous beach bunny, Nicole, who turns out to also be a very smart script writer -- and eager to assist in "surveilling" while also, umm, taking part in adult activities with Jake.

Add a Ukrainian mobster, a high-money land grab, and some deft legal and risk-taking twists, and it looks like Jake Longly could get hooked on the adventurous side of his dad's PI business, after all. That is, if he and Nicole can survive!

With a quick pace, great scenes, and "murder and mayhem" right and left, DEEP SIX promises a lively new series ahead for D.P. Lyle and Oceanview. Add it to the summer reading stack, for sure!

Lisa Brackman Returns to U.S. Thriller Line, with GO-BETWEEN from Soho Crime

I'm a total fan of Lisa Brackmann's China-set crime series that began with Rock Paper Tiger, followed by Hour of the Rat and Dragon Day. Ellie McEnroe, an Iraq war vet with a bad leg, flashbacks, and a serious passion for life in modern China, gets pretty mixed up in how she handles life, especially the political pressures and risks that Americans can trigger in that place. Her mistakes are understandable, and her frustrations and loyalties appeal to me.

The thriller route that Brackmann also opened with Michelle Mason in Getaway rubbed me wrong -- I felt as though Michelle's poor choices didn't make sense for how smart she is. So I'm glad to say that with the second book in this series, GO-BETWEEN, Michelle seems to have her smarts back into place. Unfortunately, her situation -- partnered with a serious cannabis merchant in northern California -- is designed for failure, and when her boyfriend Danny gets arrested and tossed into the for-profit prison system, it's clear that the sociopathic ex-CIA agent who got them into this mess to start with is back in their lives. For the worse, actually.

I like the way Brackmann takes us into Michelle's struggle to assess and confront the situation:
You can't worry about that now, she told herself. First things first. See Danny. Tell him what was going on. Find out what he thought she should do.

She'd worked through all the options, and she thought she knew what the best one was, but maybe he had a better idea. An angle she hadn't thought of. Because the best option she'd thought of for this situation wasn't very good at all.
Ironically, what Gary -- the ex-CIA manipulator -- wants Michelle and Danny to do for him is connected to the war on drugs, as well as big-money politics and the role of nonprofits with wealth behind them. Michelle's assessment turns out to be on target: There are no good options this time.

Dark, quirky, moderately violent, and a page-turned for its intrigue and smart twists, GO-BETWEEN captures the nightmare of every person who's ever done something "a little bit against the law" -- and is waiting for the penalty stage of capture and punishment. Scary stuff, and a compelling read as a modern thriller with bite! (From Soho Crime, of course ...)

Western Crime Fiction Crosses Into Science Spec, in YELLOWSTONE STANDOFF, Scott Graham

Torrey House Press has a strong commitment to Western Lit -- and just brought out the third "National Park Mystery" from Scott Graham. Graham's previous two titles, Canyon Sacrifice and Mountain Rampage, provided a refreshing counterpoint to the noted Nevada Barr mysteries, also set in national parks. Graham's "amateur sleuth" Chuck Bender is an archaeology specialist, contracting with the nation's prestigious Western preserves to name and document the mostly early First Nations artifacts that turn up in the caves and crevices of Western terrain.

Chuck Bender's intrigue as a character includes his passion for his new Latina wife and stepdaughters. His roles as husband and father are maturing, book by book -- and so is his willingness to include Janelle and the girls directly in the action. Janelle's determined to engage this wilderness that Chuck loves and shares with her, to the extent of even taking Wilderness First Responder and Backcountry Medicine courses. That brings her into the height of the action, too, which quickly ramps up in book three, YELLOWSTONE STANDOFF, to include attacks by both animals and humans.

Charging into the crazy situation of a national park that's home to wolves and grizzlies while allowing human guests to explore the landscape, Graham's character's benefit from this author's expertise in the outdoors. The scary effects of climate change on Yellowstone (described in even more detail in "Yellowstone 2.0" by Jake Abrahamson in the July/August 2016 issue of Sierra and with historic richness in the recent Gloomy Terrors and Hidden Fires by Ronald Anglin and Larry Morris) turn out to be what's summoned Chuck Bender to the part: A vanishing glacier revealed ancient artifacts, and Chuck and his teammates need to document the find.

But perils also appear from the local wildlife as Chuck prepares to launch his investigation. The ranger in charge tells him that a local grizzly, nicknamed Notch for its ear shape, just fatally attacked two people:
Chuck scrunched his face in bewilderment. "So you think this grizzly, Notch, might be a manhunter, and you've situated your research camp in the most likely place for the bear to turn up?"

"The best outcome of all would be a safe sighting of Notch through the presence of lots of folks in a part of the park generally uninhabited by humans but well trafficked by grizzly bears, then tracking down the bear from there."

"Okay. Fine. I get it," Chuck said. "But I still can't figure out why you gave the all-clear for me to bring my wife and kids."
Good point. Of course, this is crime fiction, so it's pretty likely there's a criminal human also involved in the terrain. When Chuck finally figures out how the pieces fit together, his family is definitely at risk.

I enjoy Graham's deep familiarity with the Western terrain, as well as with archaeology and some new methods of exploring land, animals, and artifacts. YELLOWSTONE STANDOFF is a lively page-turner and it's great to see Graham's characters maturing with the series. I found the tech side of things to be a bit stretched in terms of what science can actually do with wild animals, so if you're a science type like I am, brace for a few skeptical moments. But the plot is swift and smart, the story's memorable, and the series is well worth collecting and enjoying.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

New from Peter Lovesey: ANOTHER ONE GOES TONIGHT, British Police Procedural with Mad Twists

What a delight the new Peter Lovesey mystery is! Detective Peter Diamond steps away from the personal issues that have plagued him in recent titles in this irresistible British series, in order to investigate an accident involving a police car, a police fatality, and a critically injured civilian. Under pressure to quickly clear the officers, Diamond is the one who actually finds a motorized tricycle that the duty car had struck -- and then the injured man.
Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of an old person, very likely dead, isn't for the squeamish. The urgency of the situation overrode the reluctance. ... He stooped lower for more mouth-to-mouth. The first instinctive reluctance had gone. He cared, he really cared. Hot lips against cold. Two lungfuls of air. ... He and his mate here were not letting go. There had to be life. Come on, old friend, he urged as he worked his aching shoulders, you and I can do this.
Of course, Diamond's heroics make the situation far worse for the police force, and his superior's pressure escalates. Who is this Ivor Pellegrini that Diamond has found nearly dead, and why does the first cursory investigation of his life -- an old man with a group of friends who get together to talk trains and other topics of the aged -- have such a creepy feel to it?

Lovesey lays out a classic British mystery here, but thanks to the quirks with which he's now endowed both Diamond and the crime victim (and suspects!), ANOTHER ONE GOES TONIGHT is full of lively twists in what we know, what Diamond guesses, and how to prove it. Put this one on the summer reading list for pure enjoyment of the latest work from Lovesey, who has now created more than 30 mystery novels and gathered most of the top awards in the field. If this is your first sample of Lovesey's line, fear not -- there's nothing in the plot that requires you to have read the earlier books.

Be sure to make some guesses of your own about the neighbor's report of the naked man swimming in a pool nearby. Any intriguing distraction provided by this master of the genre has a purpose, a reason, and another quirky twist in store! Many thanks to Soho Crime for continuing to bring this series across the Atlantic.


Swedish Crime Fiction from Carl-Johan Vallgren, THE BOY IN THE SHADOWS

A few months ago, the University of Minnesota Press completed its publication of all three books in Norwegian author Vidal Sunstøl's "Minnesota Trilogy" of Norway/Minnesota crime fiction, richly underlaid with mysticism and the deep ringing notes of an author who writes far more deeply than "genre" fiction labels suggest. I treasured all three -- but as a Vermont resident, it was the second title, Only the Dead, that shook me and lingers in my mind as if I'd experienced it.

Now another link to the American Midwest rises with the newly published American version of Carl-Johan Vallgren's THE BOY IN THE SHADOWS: Brought across the Atlantic by Quercus (owned by Hodder and Stoughton), the novel was translated from Swedish by Madison, Wisconsin, resident Rachel Willson-Broyles, who took advantage of the Midwest's historic connection with the Scandinavians to become an expert in bringing one language into taut, exhilarating coupling with another. Every page of THE BOY IN THE SHADOWS feels like it's written in a native American language (with a touch of British), allowing Vallgren's disturbing currents of menace and despair to flow freely. The book is Vallgren's crime fiction debut, although he has a long track record in other Swedish fiction and is an award-winning and much-heralded author (and musician) in his native land.

What malice, what evil, in someone's past erupts in violent murder? And are there currents that swirl definitively both forward and back in time from the ultimate evils? Danny Katz, a recovering heroin addict with a significant Jewish identity, is about to find out, when an old military friend's wife asks him for help finding her missing husband. Could Joel, the eventual heir to the Klingberg family wealth, have cracked under pressure of his own long-ago disaster? What are the powerful Swedish family's roots in both Scandinavia and the Caribbean?

Danny's past makes him an easy victim, and it's soon clear he's being set up in several ways. But he's determined to keep a commitment to locating Joel -- until the level of danger sweeps away almost all of what he values. The arrival of another individual determined to unravel the knot of the past, Eva Westin, provides a scrap of hope that Danny may elude the net cast for him. But what will he have to surrender in return?

Brace for a long series of unexpected but highly satisfying plot twists in this one -- if you are collecting Scandinavian crime fiction, it's a must for your shelf, but it will also intrigue those who appreciate what a shared military past can impose on a friendship ... as well as readers who appreciate how the power of the industrial and scientific complex can become a dark and terrifying force.

No website for the author at present, and the Wikipedia page is sadly lacking, but Quercus offers a bit on Vallgren here. Another translation from Vallgren, The Tunnel, is underway.