Saturday, June 25, 2016

Red Is for Running (for Office) -- at Least, for These VT Candidates

We have two books available right now on or by current political candidates -- Bill "Spaceman" Lee is a noted Red Sox ballplayer, retired, who's entered the Vermont governor's race, and of course, technically, Bernie Sanders is still a candidate for U.S. President. Wonder whether the color choice is coincidence, or the must-have color for such items?? (note: each is signed by its author -- so there's no Sanders signature here ... alas.)

Friday, June 10, 2016

New England Author Edith Maxwell and Two Fresh Mysteries


One of the most remarkable mystery authors in New England is Edith Maxwell, who brought out THREE books in the past few weeks.

Maxwell lives in coastal Massachusetts, north of Boston, and began her mystery-writing career with several manuscripts at once. The first to be published, in 2012, was Speaking of Murder, featuring linguist Lauren Rousseau and released under a pen name, Tace Baker. Her "Local Foods Mysteries" began seeing print in 2013, starting with A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die, under her own name, Edith Maxwell. Maxwell's "Country Store Mysteries" started in 2015 with the nom de plume Maddie Day, and a fourth (!) series, her "Quaker Midwife Mysteries," launched this past April, again under the name Edith Maxwell. It's a challenge to keep up with her (reviews here!), and a delight.

I just devoured her two newest titles, GRILLED FOR MURDER (Country Store, protagonist Roberta -- better known as Robbie -- Jordon; author name Maddie Day), and MURDER MOST FOWL (Local Foods, protagonist Cam Flaherty, author name Edith Maxwell). What a treat on a chilly gray day, with the gardens finally planted and a hot bowl of shepherd's pie and some tea (my beverage of choice). I raced through them, realizing the plant-the-garden weeks had put me a bit behind Maxwell's schedule, and I wanted to get word out especially today, for those of you close enough to consider a trip to Manchester, Vt., tomorrow.

The Local Foods series has been going longer, so MURDER MOST FOWL is the fourth -- and amateur sleuth and market gardener Cam Flaherty is well developed, with characters around her who have also deepened across the series. No problem reading this one cold, without the previous three, although it's fun to enjoy them in sequence and see how it all fits together.

This time, Cam's starting seedlings and her first batch of home-raised chicks for her eastern Massachusetts farm, which is in the second year of the three-year process of getting organic certification. Her warm and steady relationship with local police detective Pete Pappas keeps her balanced, but the murder of a neighboring chicken farmer spins her into action -- the kind she's supposed to stay out of and let the police handle! A group of animal rights activists imposing their own form of terror on local farms may have targeted the now-deceased Wayne Laitenen, but one of the young women involved is the sister of a close friend of Cam's, and the determination to keep young Katie out of any unjust consequences tugs Cam more deeply into the investigation. Plenty to think about here, from the roles of animals on farms, to the shape of modern community and the roller-coaster of land values that can push farmers out of business.

GRILLED FOR MURDER takes place in small-town Indiana, "Hoosier" country, and even though country store and restaurant owner Robbie Jordan grew up mostly in California, she has emotional reasons to make her home in South Lick, where her aunt Adele lives. With her carpentry and kitchen skills, her newly rehabbed country store Pans 'N Pancakes is already a local hit, just a month and a half into its first season. So the last thing Robbie needs is notoriety, which is exactly what she gets on the morning after her first catered party ... when the body of one of the guests lies on her dining-area floor, very dead, and very clearly dumped there, after someone smashed the front door during the night. Robbie never heard a thing -- she has trouble sleeping, so she wears silicone ear stoppers -- but will the townspeople believe she had nothing to do with the death of Erica Shermer, who'd been aggressively flirting with Robbie's boyfriend at the catered event?

Maxwell deals straightforwardly with the most essential aspect of "cozy" or "amateur sleuth" mysteries: showing why her business owners feel they have to add their own snooping to the police investigations of untimely death. Both books are totally convincing on this score, and I like in particular these bit from GRILLED FOR MURDER that show the effect of the death and how close it comes:
I kept picturing Erica. Wondering who'd killed her, who'd broken into my store. I'd never seen a dead body before. It'd been an upsetting, terrible sight. ...

[Later, after making grilled cheese sandwiches for her assistant Phil and herself] "Grilled sandwiches. Yesterday morning I realized my sandwich press was missing from the wall over there." I pointed.

Phil swiped a thread of cheese off his cheek. "So?"

"It's heavy. It has long handles. I'm afraid it was used to bash in Erica's head. And these sandwiches reminded me of it."

"Ick." He made a face.

"Agree." I took a deep breath and let it out. "This whole mess is like trying to work a crossword puzzle and having only half the clues. And it's not even my puzzle to work."
Ah, but it soon is, and for both of these amateur sleuths, their skills, smarts, and friendships create their value as investigators of what the police may overlook or just be slow in seeing. Good puzzle solving, and good people -- and good reading!

Hope you can meet the author soon. A member of Sisters in Crime, she also gives intriguing talks on the books and her skills. Meanwhile, enjoy dipping into all four series -- I like them all, am fascinated by their differences, and also keep thinking about this marvelous era when women fill all the roles in Maxwell's books ... as well as writing them!

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

When Mary Higgins Clark Edits the Stories ... and Lee Child and Thomas Cook (and More!) Join Her in Writing Them

In 2015, Mystery Writers of America celebrated its 70th birthday. For the occasion, a leader of 20th-century mystery writing, Mary Higgins Clark, brought together and edited a collection of new stories set in MWA's own city: MANHATTAN MAYHEM. Not only are the stories lively, quirky, and wonderfully clever, but they are accompanied by classic photos of the city neighborhoods where they take place, from Chinatown to Hell's Kitchen to the Empire State Building's own district, as well as Harlem, Wall Street, Little Italy, and more. The Flatiron Building has its own photo -- it has a starring and romantic role in a Jack Reacher story that showcases the tough generosity of one of my favorite mythic characters, the man Clark calls "Lee Child's drifting modern warrior."

The great news for this week is, Quirk Books just released a paperback edition of MANHATTAN MAYHEM. Bookended by a story from Mary Higgins Clark, "The Five-Dollar Dress," and another from Jeffrey Deaver (World War II espionage, who would have guessed?) called "The Baker of Bleecker Street," the authors also include Nancy Pickard, Julie Hyzy, Lee Child, Thomas H. Cook, Brendan DuBois, Jon L. Breen, Ben H. Winters, Angela Zeman, N. J. Ayres, Margaret Maron, Judith Kelman, Persia Walker, T. Jefferson Parker, Justin Scott, and S. J. Rozan.

At least four of the stories in here suit my taste so well that I would have bought the collection for those alone -- and it's not just the fun of sampling these fine writers in short form that makes the book sing, but also the way each one creates a different way to pace the challenging form that encapsulates a crime, a character worth caring about, and an unexpected but satisfying resolution.

If you're looking for a summer reading choice that can be savored in short bits of time before you nod into a nap on the hammock or beach chair (or late in the evening after the work's done), here's a prime candidate. MANHATTAN MAYHEM is both a reader's and a viewer's delight, and MWA was brilliant in choosing Mary Higgins Clark to pull it together.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

CID Sergeants in Korea, Where Love and Murder Mingle, PING PONG HEART, Martin Limón

Hard to believe Martin Limón has reached the 11th already in his superb Sueño and Bascom series, set in American-occupied Korea in 1974. In PING PONG HEART, Limón proves again that for a pair of Army CID (Criminal Investigation Division) sergeants with heart, even a war zone can be a place where justice is served -- which is not exactly the same as keeping the letter of the law, is it?

George Sueño and Ernie Bascom don't think much of the case that comes there way at the opening of the book. It sounds like a classic low-life "he-said, she-said," with the Provost Marshal sending them to check out an irate major's claim that a prostitute downtown, Miss Jo, took his money and ran off, without providing any, umm, services. Major Schultz has "connections," which is why Sueño and Bascom have the assignment, instead of ordinary military police. Plus, the two of them get along with the Koreans better than most ... George studies the language and can carry on a conversation pretty well (although he's not yet reading the characters), and Ernie, well, all the girls seem to love him -- both the bar girls and their colleagues the (not always willing) prostitutes, and the secretary in the office on base. Which really should be another thing altogether, except somehow Miss Kim turns out to have her own complications that cross over into the not-so-small-after-all case.

Within the first 24 hours of the case, Sueño and Bascom find themselves tripping over people they really ought to stay away from: the power brokers in military intelligence. But as always, since they're on the side of the disadvantaged (in this case, the Korean bar girls) and being pushed by their dangerous-to-resist Korean counterpart investigator, Mr. Kill, the pair have plenty of reasons to move forward (against orders, of course). This time, each one's heart is also at risk: Ernie because Miss Kim means more to him than he's admitted so far, and George because a sudden chance to see his half-Korean son (readers of the earlier books, are you coming to attention?) during the investigation could capsize the easier relationship he's had working for him lately.

There's also a lot of fun here, in spite of the stakes. For instance, Ernie's been telling George that speaking in Korean to the girls being investigated in losing respect for them. George doesn't buy it -- but a mama-san who owns the bar where they're looking for a lead is more blunt:
"You talk," she said. "Pretty soon I busy."

I asked her again to sit, this time in Korean. She thought it over, stepped forward, and keeping her butt toward the edge of the chair, sat down. "You speaky Korean pretty good," she said. "Who teach you?"

"I study it," I said. "On compound." ...

She shook her head. "Number hucking ten." No good. There's no "f" sound in the Korean alphabet so often it's replaced with "h." And in GI slang, number one -- or hana -- is best and, reasonably enough, number ten in worst.

"Why number ten?" I asked.

"GI speak Korean, all girl lose respect for GI."

Ernie grinned and sipped on his beer,

I took the bait. "Why lose respect?"

Her eyes widened. "Talk like baby. All girl laugh at them."

Ernie glugged even more of his beer down, trying to keep from bursting into laughter.

"Okay," I said. "No more Korean. Only English." ... Then I asked her about Jo Kyong-Ja.
PING PONG HEART is full of action, twists, and good moments -- a classic Martin Limón book, satisfying, enjoyable, and almost impossible to put down. No need to read the others in the series first, but you may want them all, after reading this one.

From Soho Press, whose Soho Crime imprint continues to bring great international (and American) crime fiction to the table.


Excellent Boston Investigation, DARK HORSE, Rory Flynn

Rory Flynn's second Boston crime novel was released today, DARK HORSE -- and it is at least as good as his amazing debut book Third Rail, which came out two years ago. What a delight! And the great impressario of Boston-based crime lit, Dennis Lehane, has even added his "hurrah" to the promotions.

If you missed Third Rail, don't feel too bad; not many people realized at first what a gem it was. The buzz built very slowly. And you have time to still pick up a hardcover copy, which I definitely recommend. It's a twisty, semi-noir, Boston-drenched tale of Detective Eddy Harkness, who at the book's opening has lost his premier position among the big-city drug police, banished to emptying parking meters in his fractured but still very "historic" hometown of Nagog. Eddy's issues with substance abuse and bad choices in "dating" have really messed up his life, and for most of the book, it's anybody's guess how he'll end up.

So in a sense, if you go directly into DARK HORSE, you've already spoiled some of the suspense of the first book, because you know Eddy's lived to tell the tale, and is working back in Boston. But it's OK -- go ahead and read DARK HORSE now, and then catch up with the earlier book. The flavors of the pair are so different that you'll still be surprised at almost every situation Eddy falls (or climbs) into.

At any rate, as DARK HORSE opens, Eddy -- more often called Harkness, by himself as the point-of-view character and by many of the cops and criminals in his life -- is making a real difference in Boston, working in the Narco-Intel team of the Boston Police Department with a pair of, hmm, let's say eccentric partners. He lives with Candace and her little daughter May, and he stays out of trouble. Mostly. In fact, an unpredicted hurricane's just swamped the Lower South End of Boston and the extra push that Harkness gives to doing his job turns him into an instant hero for one of the rescues he manages. The trouble is, he's a good enough cop (with trained nose for drug traffic) that he realizes he's stumbled across the influence of a rash of drug marketing in a single region of the city -- with a really strange form of heroin called Dark Horse, where the packets even include nifty labeling that includes the horse image.

Tracking the unusual pattern of the drug's spread, as well as its puzzling composition, takes Harkness into a confrontation with a secretive cabal that's manipulating real estate in the wake of the storm. At the same time, a bunch of displaced residents from the Lower South End are invading Eddy Harkness's home town of Nagog and the situation smells of advance planning and coordination. Plus an old colleague from the town phones him with bad news:
"Eddy, it's me." It's the voice of Captain Watt out at Nagog police headquarters. "Got a big problem out here."

"What's going on?"

"Got a pissed-off guy cuffed and screaming in the back of my squad car."

"What'd he do?"

"Attempted B and E."

"Sound like you got your man. What's the problem?"

"It's your brother, Eddy. It's George."
If you're a Boston fan, you'll get extra enjoyment from DARK HORSE, because you'll know the streets, the significant buildings, the feel of that downtown rush of energy contrasted with the leafy suburbs that think they're better off somehow. And if you don't know Boston at all, the version of it that Eddy Harkness knows -- from his "bad-boy" past, to his passion for unraveling criminality, to his dream of living peacefully (even as a cop) with Candace and May -- is so convincing, you'll probably feel at home when you finally visit "Beantown."

Buckle up for a fast ride through complications, fistfights, a few (not too gory) murders, and an inside look at urban power brokers versus Occupy-type activists. It's the world of Eddy Harkness. And it's a great, great read.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Bold New Aimée Leduc Crime Novel, MURDER ON THE QUAI, Cara Black

Someday I'll see Paris -- and when I do, I hope there will be an "app" for my smartphone that directs me to all the "quartiers" where the Aimée Leduc mysteries take place, with details of plot, and suggestions for where to enjoy the morning coffee-and-croissant or the evening dining and dancing. Wouldn't that be great? It's also an incentive to read these popular detective novels, set in that glittering and romantic city.  With MURDER ON THE QUAI, Cara Black provides her 16th title.

Long-time fans of the series will be startled to open this book and find a young Aimée, already clever at finding secondhand clothing with haute couture, struggling to do homework and prepare for a test in medical school! The book's actually a prequel to the other 15, and it introduces the reasons this stylish young woman will desert the classroom to take over her family's detective business -- as well as providing answers to many questions readers may have wondered about in the past, like how she started riding motorbikes, where her dog (named Miles Davis, a bichon frise) came from, how she met her super-hacker dwarf partner in crimesolving René, and -- most urgent of all -- the truth of how her father was framed and (gulp) met a dire end.

But if you've never read a Cara Black/Aimée Leduc mystery before, this one's still a great place to start. It opens in November 1989, on the weekend when the Berlin Wall was torn down. Quick math: that would be just 44 years since Paris's occupation, right? So of course, there's a plot thread involving Nazi brutality and gold, as well as Resistance fighters -- many still living at that time, as well as their children, and you know that part about how many generations will carry a crime with them? (Well, okay, the Bible says it differently, but you know what I mean, right?)

I enjoyed romping with Aimée through the Paris days and nights, and watching her grasp each hint and clue about both a crime she happens to investigate, and her own family's secrets. No wonder she chose a different route from medical school -- investigation and operating on a blend of sharp reasoning and fierce instinct suit her like a ... shall we say, like a tenderly aged Chanel jacket??

From Soho Press, which has been Cara Black's publisher from the start -- a gem of a prequel, indeed.

Climate Change Turns Deadly in COLD BLOOD, HOT SEA, Charlene D'Avanzo

New Englanders may not have more certainty than other people about climate change, but if there's something affecting the spread of lobsters along the Maine coast, they want it fixed -- now.

That's not likely to happen. Instead, the wrangling continues on who should do what, and whether there's any need for it. In Charlene D'Avanzo's debut mystery, all that wrangling and, more urgently, all the money and reputations at stake in the climate wars focus on the Maine fishing grounds. Oceanographer Mara Tusconi, whose assets include her PhD in the study of those waters, and whose deficits include terrible seasickness, is being cut out of the research action by her unpleasant boss, who won't direct funding toward her work, even with an intern arriving any day now. Mara quickly decides to recruit the lobstermen/women to her project, creating a much more appealing route toward grant support.

But before she can get things underway, a messy death on the research boat -- probably not an accident, and maybe aimed at her as well -- capsizes her plans. When she starts snooping into a nearby algae farm breeding genetically modified organisms to replace fuel oil, her sense of scientific logic points toward big-money-at-stake fraud.

The "cli fi" (climate fiction) aspect of COLD BLOOD, HOT SEA is clear from the cover (where there's a blurb from climate activist Bill McKibben) and may divide potential readers. But a good traditional mystery is all about the plot and its twists, and D'Avanzo spins a lively and very readable tale of suspense, risk, and high stakes. Mara Tusconi and her friends -- especially Harvina "Harvey" Allison, who's also a researcher, and Mara's white-haired godfather Angelo De Luca -- are warm and likeable. And along with the lobster issues, the research fraud, and the unexpected death on board, Mara's got what might become a huge problem: She's a target of a nasty group of the climate-change doubters, who've hacked her e-mail and are trying to make her look fraudulent, herself.

I particularly enjoyed the final thread that emerged as the mystery deepened: the deaths of Mara's own parents when she was a small child. Seasoned mystery readers may spot the clues before Mara is ready for results (she may be a PhD scientist, but she's only an amateur at sleuthing), while also admiring her pluck and determination to get to the truths of her life.

COLD BLOOD, HOT SEA released June 7 from Torrey House, a Salt Lake City publisher specializing in the environment and the wild outdoors. It's a good pick for their line, and D'Avanzo, who lives in Yarmouth, Maine, clearly knows enough of her science and its frictions to spin a fast-paced story without letting the realistic details drag down the pace.

Here's a sample so you can see firsthand how enjoyable this is:
I let go of the breath I was holding and looked up at Harvey. The hot pink, dangling earphones and wide eyes were too much.

My chortle morphed into a snort, and in seconds I was doubled up on the yoga mat, laughing like a lunatic.

I managed one "Harvey, I'm so sorry" in there somewhere.

... I grabbed a tissue. "But seriously, Harvey, you want to be department head and would be great at it. This is bad for you, and it's my fault."

She shook her head. "I chose to come back." ...

"Guess this shows what I'm doing is risky, at least as far as he's concerned."

"What we're doing, girlfriend. Looks like I'm in it now."

The surge of relief surprised me. I dabbed my eyes once more. "You're one tough babe, Harv."
Pick this one up for a good traditional mystery read, as well as the Maine backdrop, some ocean kayaking, and a taste of the climate wars from the vantage point of the infantry in the labs. Good fun, and thought-provoking, as well.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Fishing, Tracking, and Crime in Wisconsin, with Victoria Houston, DEAD LOUDMOUTH


Hard to believe this is already number 16 of the rural Wisconsin "Loon Lake" mysteries that Victoria Houston braids so adeptly with fly-fishing, bass fishing, tracking, and survival around the lakes and woods. Just goes to show, a book a year adds up! From her first book, Dead Angler, onward, Houston's embrace of her return home to Wisconsin has paid off.

I've found the series uneven at times, so I meandered into DEAD LOUDMOUTH slowly, feeling the water, so to speak. It's a good catch! After a quick prologue to set the tone of vengeful murder, the book opens from the point of view of Police Chief Lew Ferris, quickly partnered (as usual) with her fill-in forensics associate, retired dentist Paul Osborne. Osborne has good news to share (the two have become an occasional couple but always seem to be catching up from separate activities). But Lew (and we) will wait for that news a while, because old-fashioned deputy Roger Adamczak's on Lew's phone with an emergency.
"Two, chief, and they are dead, real dead --"

... She hit the speaker button on her desk phone. "Okay, Roger, start from the beginning, please."

"Chief, we got two bodies. Fragrant derelicts. Know what I mean?"

Lew looked over at Osborne, a puzzled expression on her face.

"I think he means 'in flagrante delicto,'" whispered Osborne... "That means naked and ...," he hesitated as he searched for a polite way to described what he imagined Roger must mean, "...entwined for lack of a better word."
The bodies on the elevated piano at the pricey (and very sexist) "gentlemen's club" near the area's posh private hunting preserve are pretty clearly homicides. Who'd want to kill two people at once? Well, there could be jealous lovers. Unhappy employees. The list goes on, and Doc Osborne barely has time to welcome his visiting granddaughter in between calls to check out what's going wrong in the town's tourist-dependent sporting locales.

But when Doc's granddaughter disappears out on the water while Doc's at work, even Lew's expert tracker (and poacher) buddy Ray Pradt can't find her, and -- there's clearly a murderer on the loose in the same region.

Quick pace, a wonderful sense of Wisconsin out-of-doors, and characters who care about each other -- with these components, Victoria Houston has spun a lively and enjoyable mystery, closer to a "traditional" feel than to a police investigation. I enjoyed it all, and I'll go back for more.

How to Risk It All, in STRAW MAN, Gerry Boyle

Ten Jack McMorrow crime novels came out over the years before Mainer Gerry Boyle's just-released STRAW MAN. Through those ten, Jack has rescued his family from threats brought by his career as a freelance crime reporter (think New York Times and more) and also from some creeps that his wife Roxanne's career antagonized (social workers meet a tough crowd). So you'd think his cred at home would be pretty good, especially considering what a great parent he is to their daughter Sophie. Plus Jack's combat-trained (but peace-loving) neighbor Claire and his wife Mary life next door, close friends with Jack and Roxanne and their charming six-year-old.

You'd be wrong this time, though.

Some of the problem came from Jack -- walking into the house bloody and battered isn't a great example for your little daughter, right? Of course, with Jack, the fight was for someone else's sake, and for the balance of good in the universe, or at least his region of rural Maine. And it won't get in the way of the next two stories he plans to explore for the newspaper, either, especially since one of them is on indie gun sales. But this time, Roxanne doesn't see things that way.
Roxanne took a deep breath, looked up from the mug, and said, "I'm worried about Sophie."

"Why? She seemed fine." ...

"Did you look in the mirror, Jack? Your face, your hands. What the hell happened?"

"There were some guys poaching wood off the Hoddings' land."

... "You had a brawl in the woods? ... My God, Jack. You can't do this anymore. You have a daughter."

"That's why we made sure we won."
Roxanne isn't buying into Jack's reasoning -- at all. The new factor in the equation that used to balance the two of them (and their little daughter) is named Welt, and he disapproves of male violence. Roxanne thinks that's heroic: "Welt is a really nice guy. What he's doing is good. He wants to make the world a better place."

So does Jack McMorrow, when you come right down to it. That's why he got into that "brawl" in the woods, defending the assets of a vulnerable elderly couple. It's also what will pull him so deep into his two cross-pollinating stories of gun sales and local Mennonites that he'll keep telling himself -- and Roxanne -- that he has to take action to save others.

The trouble is, Roxanne doesn't believe him any longer. And Jack isn't sure whether she's already considering leaving him, for this Welt guy. In fact, each added scrap of evidence says she's almost on her way.

There's never been a situation before for Jack McMorrow that his friendship with Claire couldn't solve. Until now.

Gerry Boyle's action-packed storytelling never slows down in STRAW MAN. Every couple of pages there's a new twist, and the suspense keeps twisting tighter. When the threats in his work life angle sideways toward Roxanne and little Sophie, Jack's own risks turn almost unbearable.

Here's a plus: You don't need to read any of the other Jack McMorrow books before this one -- you can ride the fast-paced plot and feel yourself twist and agonize with Jack all the way through, without needing to know what came before this. (You might want to collect the others afterward, though, to catch up!) On the other hand, if you've been reading them all along -- and most especially the most recent, Once Burned -- the stakes will feel even higher, the danger more inescapable.

Way to go, Gerry Boyle (and Islandport Press). And Jack McMorrow.

Irish Noir and Heartbreak in SILENCE, Anthony Quinn

The arrival of an "international" mystery on the American market can be a mystery in itself. Irish bestselling author Anthony Quinn isn't well known -- yet -- on this side of the Atlantic, but thanks to the partnership of the Mysterious Press (Otto Penzler's creation) and Open Road Media (!), Quinn's third in his Inspector Celcius Daly series, SILENCE, is now available here.

What a great Irish police investigation! Inspector Daly is in the confusing passage of midlife as a police officer in Ireland, where "The Troubles" are supposed to be over and recovered from -- including a posh new headquarters for the police force in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In fact, policing is supposed to be free of the past, and highly professional. But Daly, in many ways a traditional police detective, isn't sure why Special Branch is housed in the same new building. Still, when Special Branch shows up at a car crash that Daly's investigating, he's sure there are powerful disclosures ahead about the victim, Father Aloysius Walsh.

What Daly doesn't expect is a personal involvement in the investigation. Father Walsh, he soon discovers, had been investigating a set of nearby murders that took place in the heyday of The Troubles, and the map of killings includes the family home where Daly still resides, alone, as his parents are dead and he really has no other personal life around him. Living in this monument to vanished parents becomes nearly intolerable when Father Walsh's murder map reveals Daly's own, unknowing role in the horrors of the past.

First, though, he'll need to try to understand the victim, this priest sprawled in a crushed car that's somehow flown off the road by some traffic cones, and into disaster.
He looked unhappy to have ended up like this, a grisly spectacle of motoring misdirection.

However, the most poignant element of the scene lay in the strange object the dead man gripped in his right hand. Daly narrowed the beam on to the stiffened fingers, which were wrapped around an untidy braid of children's rosary beads and holy medals, strands of charms tied up with wisps of broken string. He stared at this twisted pigtail of religious effects and wondered what significance they had for the dead priest. Did they represent a cry for spiritual assistance, or something more sinister? ...

The more Daly looked at the strange bundle, the more it spoke to him of something more personal: his own religion. ... He still felt the soothing power of the Church's symbols, the rosary beads and the miraculous medals, and he worried that if he removed them completely from his life, he might find himself pulled down a tapering funnel into a deeper darkness. 
In this third in the Inspector Daly series, Daly finds his sanity and his job on the line, as well as his life. Here's a tightly plotted and psychologically compelling crime novel of "today's Northern Ireland" -- and it turns out that The Troubles are far from over.

Highly recommended, even if the author does slip into a momentary jest about the crime fiction of the leader of today's Irish noir, Stuart Neville. (Watch for that moment.) Quinn's awards and nominations are quickly piling up; it's time to catch up with, and enjoy, his evocative and well-paced writing.

Empowering the Crime Fiction Genre: Fuminori Nakamura #10

A reviewer in one of this morning's powerful newspapers made the casual assumption that thrillers, a plot-driven subgenre of the mystery field, are written (like other mysteries) to provide escape time for readers. With Fuminori Nakamura's newest crime novel in mind, THE KINGDOM, that's simply not the case.

Instead, consider Dostoevsky's powerful novel The Brothers Karamazov  -- which could be described as driven by a plot involving patricide, the world-shaking killing of father by child. Amid all the twists of the book, the author's philosophizing (spoken by the characters) pounds against the soul like an ocean on a beach. Well, pardon the dramatic metaphor, but over and over, in THE KINGDOM, I thought of Dostoevsky.

The book's first-person narrative comes from Yurika, a professional prostitute in Tokyo's underworld (a career choice that won't surprise readers of Nakamura's earlier books). Not only is she soliciting men to have sex with her -- she's working for a mysterious organization that pays her to drug them men, set up items around their naked bodies (sometimes she is one of the items), and photograph them, obviously for the sake of power via blackmail. Yurika (dare we guess that the sound of her name, spoken aloud, is signaling something?) gets off on the vulnerability she creates through these stagings. But she's not clear on who actually is hiring her, to the point where she may even have created one or more stagings in opposition to her real bosses. Uh-oh.

When her own past suddenly takes center stage, she's trapped and frantic. And despite her logical reaction of terror and desire to escape, she's pinned ... and listening, against her will, to a very disturbing man she calls (whether it's his real name or not) Kizaki:
Kizaki moved his hand slightly.

"Let's say there is a man on the bed in a love hotel in Ikebukuro, and you stab him straight through the chest."

I focused on my nerves and maintained my smile. I'm sure he was saying on it purpose, but he didn't show it at all.

"Just staring cruelly at that man as he suffers from the wound is boring. Smiling while you watch him suffer, that's boring, too. You must feel what he feels. ... keep stabbing. Deeper. Deeper. Then, both the overwhelming, cruel joy of destroying a life and the warm feeling of sympathizing with that life will seep through you. ... those feelings will go beyond human capacity, and keep rising up forever. Like a whirlpool. What's important is to leave nothing unappreciated. It's great. That moment."

Kizaki reached out and suddenly grabbed the neck of the woman next to him.
The meshing of violence, sex, and an insistent pornographic attention to inner feelings places THE KINGDOM in a stance that may explain, for instance, the steady TV contracts to shows like Criminal Minds and books like The Silence of the Lambs. This is the inside-out of crime fiction: not the heroic stance of the crime solver, but the obsessive drive of the most twisted and potent of criminals, and the desire to watch.

And yet. Yurika is more than her paid work, and more than her trembling, half-exhilarated shock at what confronts her. Emerging from her isolation as a child orphan and then as an adult working in the most despised ways, she expresses a longing for something "other." She asks of herself, "What tide was I being tossed around by? Who or what had I betrayed? What had I escaped from?"

In this tenth of his crime novels, Nakamura presses more directly than ever on the dark side of urban lives, from Tokyo to its shadowed mirror in urban America. Wisely, he keeps the plot direct, clear, and compact -- THE KINGDOM wraps up at 212 pages -- and provides a classic in the making.

Obviously, if the violence and darkness repel you, don't read this one. But if you can bear walking through the book as a "watcher" of what Nakamura presents, then this book is well worth reading and owning. I'll be re-reading this and other Nakamura crime novels, for sure. Once again, Soho Crime proves that the "mystery genre" is far wider and more diverse than any casual assumptions might suggest.

Just make sure there's room in your schedule for recovery from this highly purposeful journey into darkness.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Crooning into Crime, THE SINGER FROM MEMPHIS, Gary Corby

I get a kick out of Australian author Gary Corby's wicked sense of humor -- but I should admit right away that THE SINGER FROM MEMPHIS is not an Elvis Presley mystery! Opening in ancient Athens like Corby's preceding five Athenian mysteries, it features Nicolaos, the only private investigator in his city-state at the time. And, of course, his highly intelligent and (gulp) philosophical wife Diotima, who's already broadened his views of women, life, and theatre in preceding titles.

This time his boss Pericles (who always has ulterior motives) is sending Nicolaos to Egypt (where there's a very different Memphis) as an undercover spy. Of course Diotima will go along -- more to the point, so will the author-in-research-stage Herodotus, whose mission of fact-finding is the excuse for what Pericles wants accomplished. At stake is the path to the throne for the contenders grappling to rule Egypt. Is Herodotus also a spy? What other Mediterranean political forces are muddying the Nile's waters? Quick as a trireme can sail (what, you don't know about triremes? trust me, you're going to love them), Nicolaos discovers there are at least three armies and spies in play. And at least one of them is determined to make things personal and get rid of Nicolaos along the way. Good thing Diotima's got his back, even in negotiations:
Somehow Herodotus knew that Diotima and I had been to Ionia, a province of Asia Minor ... it seemed odd to me that he knew such a detail.

Herodotus proceeded to ask us questions about Themistocles. We were able to fend off almost every sensitive issue, since we had only met Themistocles at the end of his life.

"How did he die?" Herodotus asked. He held the brush poised over his scroll and looked up at us expectantly.

The answer to that question was a state secret. I turned to Diotima. Diotima turned to me. We had both sworn never to reveal the truth of those terrible days. ...

I said, "He died of an illness. It was natural causes."

The explanation might have held, except that at the very same instant Diotima said, "It was suicide. He drank bull's blood."

Herodotus looked from one to the other of us in surprise. "Surely it must be one or the other."

"It was both," I answered, thinking quickly. "When Themistocles learned he was dying of natural causes, he drank bull's blood to end it all."

"I see," Herodotus said doubtfully. "I didn't realize bull's blood was poisonous."

"Oh, it is," Diotima said with a straight face. "I thought everyone knew that."

"Thank you," Herodotus said. He scribbled notes.

After that we resolved to avoid Herodotus whenever he had his scroll open.
The pen (or ink brush) may be mightier than the sword, but it's a crossbow that Nicolaos will soon fear, along with spears, crocodiles, and more. Among the forces fighting for Egypt's throne are a cabal of Public Service workers determined to protect their cushy jobs and incomes, at least two potential rulers, and the massive power of the Persians and the Spartans.

Sure, I had to have my arm twisted to start reading this series (revealed in an earlier review here), but Gary Corby's dialogue and plot twists are so entertaining that it's easy to put aside skepticism about "history this old" and relax in the grins and laughter that THE SINGER FROM MEMPHIS provides. Capers, politics, good old-fashioned murder and other crimes -- it's all here, like a happy bundle of papyrus fastened with a scarab or two.

Great summer reading, so add it to the stack! And yes, this is another winner from Soho Crime ... gotta love that press for lively international mysteries in all centuries, continents, and flavors.

Prime British Crime Fiction from Elly Griffiths: THE WOMAN IN BLUE, Ruth Galloway #8

The first book in the Ruth Galloway crime fiction series, The Crossing Places, won the Mary Higgins Clark award for 2011 -- and of course, the award took place some time after the book hit the stores. Now in 2016, author Elly Griffiths presents the eighth in the impressive sequence: THE WOMAN IN BLUE.

This series features forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway, a professional at university level who still has to fight for her career, against the sexist and crass assumptions of people like her boss. Single parenting in a community that's gradually becoming aware of her daughter's father -- married and unavailable -- Ruth juggles child care and teaching and investigation, in a jumble that feels all too familiar for modern life: nothing's easy, there's never enough time, and all of it matters intensely.

As THE WOMAN IN BLUE opens, one of the most appealing of Ruth's friends, Cathbad, himself a parent and also a modern-day British druid, witnesses a "woman in blue" (how can I not think of T. S. Eliot's vision in blue, "in Mary's color") standing in an ancient Christian cemetery. "As Cathbad approaches, she looks at him, and her face, illuminated by something stronger than natural light, seems at once so beautiful and sad that Cathbad crosses himself. 'Can I help you?' he calls. His voice echoes against stone and darkness."

It's understandable that Cathbad wonders whether he's seen a real person, or a vision, even if that would belong to a faith very different from his own. But as Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson quickly discovers, along with the young woman's corpse, she's been a patient at an upscale drug rehab facility nearby. The blue "cloak" is a dressing gown, even if it does look -- to Nelson's usually unimaginative eye -- like a druid's down attire.

Ruth Galloway quickly becomes part of the investigation: partly because Nelson and his team count on her for her expertise (although usually for Iron Age skeletons!), and mostly because an old friend from archaeology school is in town for a conference of woman Anglican priests heading toward higher positions in the church hierarchy. When Hilary Smithson reconnects with Ruth, there's a powerful ulterior motive for getting back in touch: threats against her life, which Hilary hopes that Ruth can help assess, based on all the modern-day police connections that Ruth's clearly experienced in the past few (very public) years.
"The thing is," says Hilary again, cubing the cubes, "there are some people who just don't like the idea of woman priests."

Ruth knows. She's read about it in the Guardian. Though, to be honest, she usually skips those articles on the way to the TV listings.

"Most women priests get abuse of some kind, people saying things, refusing to come to their services. When I first started getting the letters I didn't think anything of it. A rite of passage ... Then, at the end of last year, the tone seemed to change, to become nastier, more sinister. But what worried me most were the references to archaeology ... because it was specific to me. ... He must have found out that I was coming to this conference."
Ruth's dubious about her ability to help -- but soon the twists of events threaten her carefully balanced life, including her relationship with her daughter's father, and when her own slant on the past comes into play (archaeology matters!), she moves several steps ahead of the police in grasping the motive for the spate of deaths of blond young women like the one "in blue."

Elly Griffiths spins a tight, taut, and neatly twisted crime plot where the significant characters -- Ruth, Nelson, Cathbad -- must learn something deeper about themselves and their part of England in order to solve the crimes and stop their escalation. Each time I read another in the Ruth Galloway series, I marvel at how few people know these. It's something about the English source of the books, of course ... THE WOMAN IN BLUE was release on the other side of the Atlantic in February, reaching us quietly in May through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. If I could summon up a change in the way these books arrive here, I'd send Griffiths on a major tour, where she could reveal her own secret life (her name's not really Griffiths! -- see her website for more) and connect with the smart savvy readers who appreciate her books so much. (I reviewed numbers 6 and 7 here.)

But then again, that would get in the way of writing Ruth Galloway investigation number 9 -- and I want more of these, for a very satisfying shelf of mysteries that I re-read with pleasure. Now that I think of it, maybe that's how I'll celebrate the start of official summer in a few weeks: by returning to the start of the series and reading them all again. Yes!