Saturday, April 18, 2015

Exhilarating Discovery: Finnish Crime Fiction Author Pekka Hiltunen

The second book in an emotionally gripping crime fiction series by Pekka Hiltunen arrived in the US this winter: BLACK NOISE. I took my time reading it and thinking about what makes it so good. Here's the scoop:

One day, Hiltunen, who admits he is often called the Finnish Stieg Larsson (both authors had been journalists), met a pair of very intelligent women who were highly knowledgeable about crime-fighting, and the experience began to possess him, turning him toward careful observations of the power of women's friendships. When he pulled a plot into place around the characters who were coming alive to him -- Mari and Lia, two Finnish women in London with vastly different roles in a private crime-fighting force called the Studio -- he found he'd become fascinated as much by the friendships as by the crimes. Although Mari and Lia are "on the same side" and investigating and taking action together, they haven't revealed themselves fully to each other. This added level of mystery ramps up the tension as they tackle a new form of terrorism.

The crimes begin with what seems like a prank: People's YouTube accounts are being hacked, and under their names, bizarre all-black videos of just darkness air on the social network. But then videos of brutal violence appear in the same way -- on accounts of people who are clueless about why they've been targeted -- and the body count in London soars. It's clear there's a hate-crime aspect to the choice of victims ... and when Mari's team tries to tackle solving the crime in ways that the conventional police either can't or won't, one of the team members becomes another victim.

Hiltunen forsakes the "easy crime" paths, opening up instead the layers of soul-crippling grief that come with the loss of a team member, and the desperation that takes over in the ensuing weeks, even months. What pulls the team back together is an odd but very realistic mix of family support, personal determination, and unwillingness to see the investigation fail -- especially when it means that a murderer who's damaged the team directly may escape.

Don't take the Stieg Larsson comparison to heart: Hiltunen's direction, although it involves brutal crime, avoids (at least in BLACK NOISE) the sexual predation that stalks Larsson's books, and the violence, while horrible, skates a fine edge of being "real" but not obscenely gory. It's the characters that matter -- their delicate approach to each other's private worlds, and their willingness to go beyond friendship, in the way that elite armed forces members forge a bond that carried them into action despite the terrible costs ahead. This isn't just a psychological thriller; it's a probing and rewarding look at how people choose to assert the demand for justice.
Mari changed her mind about standing aside once the police spokespeople announced that the kickings weren't necessarily hate crimes.

The determination and speed with which she took up the case showed how angry she was.

Immediately after the updated police press conference, Mari called them all to the Studio, and as she walked to Bankside, Lia already knew what was up.

'Idiots,' Mari said, meaning the police. ... 'They were all grabbed coming out of gay bars,' Mari said. 'And their bodies were brought back to the bars." ... Mari already had tasks outlined for them.
Not only did I savor BLACK NOISE -- I'm sure I'll be re-reading it. And, oh yes, I'll have to find a copy of the first in the series, Cold Courage. There's a video of the author describing his entry into that first book, on YouTube (shiver!). Click here to watch it, provided by the publisher, Hesperus. Yes, Hiltunen's spoke English is excellent in the video -- but a tip of the hat is due to the translator from BLACK NOISE from the original Finnish, Owen F. Witesman. The book in English flows well, and is well worth reading.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Psychological Suspense: THE DOLL'S HOUSE, Louise Phillips (Ireland)

Louise Phillips is a best-selling author in Ireland; it may take a while, in the current flood of imported crime fiction, for American readers to catch up with her. After her dark and complex debut with Red Ribbons, Hachette Ireland now offers her second book, THE DOLL'S HOUSE, to the U.S. market, in softcover.

Forget any notion of Ibsen or other dollhouse images -- in this case, a young woman, Clodagh Hamilton -- that's her maiden name, but it's the important one -- is struggling to hold onto her newly gained sobriety, while her husband batters her both emotionally and physically, and her desperate search for sanity forces her to investigate the long-ago family issues around the death of her father, Adrian Hamilton. Accident, or something more sinister? And why did her mother stop loving her, when she was just seven years old?

When Clodagh enlists a hypnotherapist to help part the clouds of the past, her frightening gains of memory turn her into a target for the forces of the past. As the plot lines tangle, it's clear that the only chance there is for Clodagh's survival will depend on criminal psychologist Dr Kate Pearson catching up with related deaths and motives, in time to reach the truth.

And the doll's house? That's the one from Clodagh's childhood -- the one where, each time she regresses to the past, the dolls take on personalities and sharp voices that warn and threaten. Sure, the voices are those of her own past ... but which ones can she trust, and which are childhood misunderstandings or malicious misleading?

The pace is tight, the emotions piercing, and the connections between Clodagh and Kate -- whom we've met in Red Ribbons and whose own life is rapidly fracturing around the end of a relationship -- turn out to be both significant and suspenseful. The clock is ticking, and there's reason to believe that destruction and abuse are multiplying.

No, there's nothing particularly "Irish" to this crime novel -- it's built on clearly inked characters, not on the history or traditions of the Emerald Isle -- yet the chilling criminal maneuvers subtly echo the evil that, say, Stuart Neville taps into so readily. Everything here depends on Clodagh and Kate. Struggling with them through the action, readers know exactly how vulnerable each one is. Does the perpetrator know this, also?

Author website here:

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Exciting Debut: PAST CRIMES, Glen Erik Hamilton

Reading another author's Facebook musings last month, I noticed her enthusiasm about a debut mystery from Seattle native (and now California resident) Glen Erik Hamilton. So I picked up a copy, and soon was in "can't put it down" mode. As many reviewers have noted, this is a very polished "first novel" -- no signs at all of being a debut. So I've got to wonder what Hamilton has already written, and where it's been published.

But Hamilton hasn't revealed that, in the dozen interviews of him that I've scanned. In fact, the only hint on his writing career is one comment that "moving away from Seattle" made him want to write about the city where he'd grown up. He also admitted to one interviewer that he hadn't actually started out with "I'm going to write a mystery" -- his adventure featuring Army Ranger Van Shaw, who's been in both Iraq and Afghanistan with the elite fighting corps, started with the relationship of Van and his grandfather, Dono (for Donovan; an Irish immigrant). Dono raised Van and trained him, when the boy showed an aptitude for it, in the trade of immaculately planned robberies, midsize to almost large. The kind that are worth doing, but never with a serious risk of being caught, because Dono is such a detailed planner and so careful to note his surroundings.

At first, it's not clear why Van left home -- just that when Dono sends the equivalent (for anyone else's life) of a shout for help ("Come home, if you can"), Van didn't hesitate to apply for leave and race across the globe.

His arrival is literally minutes too late to find out what's wrong. There's been a vicious attack on his grandfather, and the attacker is racing away as Van finds himself pinned to his desperately wounded relative, needing to staunch the bleeding and call for help. Soon he's telling his story to police detectives. And it's a sure thing that he'll be a suspect in spite of all this: His grandfather's shady record emerges right away, and Van's in the hot seat.

Complications quickly snarl around his legs, keeping Van from speedily tracking down the underlying truth of the situation. The police are naturally suspicious of whether Dono's attack came from brothers in crime; Dono's above-board business interests demand Van's attention; secrets abound. He's trying to think on his feet, as he discovers his grandfather's last phone call had been to Ephraim Ganz, a criminal attorney:
What Dr. Singh had asked me earlier that day came flooding back. Did my grandfather have a living will? Christ, was that why Dono had called Ganz? Had he known that trouble was coming?

My fingers gripped the phone, as if testing the limit of strength in my healed arm. Tomorrow was Monday. Ganz's office would be open. Or I could find Hollis.

Addy Proctor had summed it up for me: You have to do something. Or go nuts.

I was halfway to crazy already. It was time to start pushing in the other direction.
As always, what makes a well-plotted crime novel unforgettable is the intensity of the protagonist. Van Shaw's uneasy position, halfway between "trained young thief" and much-appreciated Army Ranger, perched on the edge of a wild land of his grandfather's secrets, turns him into an unlikely and uncomfortable sleuth, one who may decide that balancing the scales of justice is best done personally, rather than through the law.

One more good part about this book: The cover says "A Van Shaw Novel." That's a sure sign there's another one already in the pipeline. And in fact, a quick visit to the author's website (click here) gets you to his blog, which reveals the manuscript for number 2 is already headed to the publisher. Way to go!


I'm a loyal fan of Jon Land's Caitlin Strong series, in which the descendant of a close-knit family of Texas Rangers shows the guys she can live up to the legend and the skills demanded in modern-day law enforcement, while Land simultaneously reveals details of the long-ago Rangers, as far back as the frontier skirmishes along the Texas/Mexico border. There's a hint of the paranormal in the series, as one of Caitlin Strong's most important defenders has an eerie sense of when she needs him.

BLACK SCORPION is the sequel to The Seven Sins and provides a fast-paced, intent, multi-point-of-view thrill ride that starts with a powerful symbolic item that belongs to Solomon, son of the great King David, in northern Israel more than three thousand years ago. Then the narrative races among various times and locations, gradually revealing a pattern of competition for that power, among Jewish descendants and those who want them crushed -- yes, even a Nazi element here. But there's Julius Caesar as well, and a fascinating strand invoking the Gypsies of northern Europe, too. Can you resist Romania? Transylvania??

Tying it all together is Michael Tiranno, who five years earlier saved the entire city of Las Vegas from a terrorist attack and now owns the palatial Seven Sins resort there. His expansion plans suddenly suffer attack from a group with ties to European terrorists, the Black Scorpion forces. And the archaeologist who has become his beloved, Scarlett Swan, falls into the hands of those enemies. Michael's efforts to gain her freedom require painful alliances, violent action, and incisive decision making.

I won't add more, since this is probably enough for most readers to recognize the type of international and multiple-timeline thriller Land provides in this series (which by the way is headed for both Hollywood and DC Comics plus graphic novels). But I should probably add a "warning label": If you devour Land's new "Tyrant Reborn" thriller, you may become an addict to the series!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Probe the Plot, Enjoy the Pets: THE ICING ON THE CORPSE, Liz Mugavero

For the third time, I picked up a Liz Mugavero mystery, I chuckled at the entertaining cover (the protagonist has an organic pet food business) and I kidded myself that the book would be as fluffy as the cute pets on the front.

But just like in Mugavero's debut mystery, Kneading to Die, and her second, A Biscuit, A Casket, THE ICING ON THE CORPSE provides a  crime adventure featuring amateur sleuth "Stan" (for Kristan) Connor and her Pawsitively Organic pet-focused business in small-town Frog Ledge, Connecticut. And the plot complexities spin, the character nuances are well worth thinking about (Stan's inability to quite commit to her boyfriend; her unresolved issues with her mom), and the insight into (slightly exaggerated, sure) small-town New England life gives me shivers. Oh yes, and a need to set aside distractions and just keep turning the pages!

This time, Stan may feel that the costumed townsfolk saluting Groundhog Day -- wearing costumes, outdoors, on February 2 -- have turned the town hall and its environs into something surreal. But she's honored to be involved in the town's noted annual event, presenting an "edible gift" to the visiting creature imported for the occasion. It's a mark of how much people appreciate her pet treats business, and she's got enough orders to keep her running.

Unfortunately, before Stan can step up to this honor, she's distracted by the sudden death of the town's elderly historian, Helga Oliver. Her boyfriend's sister Jessie is a tough local police officer -- Stan's already had plenty of friction with her in the first book -- but Jessie's actually asking Stan to take a role in processing this death. And of course, if you read mysteries like this one, you (and one of the others on hand) have already guessed the death is murder. But Stan also has business to attend to:
She'd been getting requests for parties on and off since her first one last October, a birthday party for Benny, the fox terrier, had been so well received. Stan opened a new document on her iPad and prepared to take notes.

Dede smiled. "It's a bit more than a simple party, but I know you'll understand. Animal people always understand. I'd like to have a wedding ceremony for my rescue dogs ..." ...
It would be something else to add to her repertoire -- doggie wedding cakes.

I enjoyed the way Mugavero set Stan up to probe the town's history while juggling her work and helping out friends; there are just the right number of red herrings, and the action is swift and believable. If I had Stan Connor living in my town, you bet I'd call her in, as soon as something suspicious cropped up. Or before that, for amazing organic meals and treats for my pets -- oops, maybe not for the guppy in the fishtank, but if I did have dogs or cats ... well, you know what I mean. Mugavero's character line-up of critters is delightful and just as believable as her sleuth. And yes, the book includes some tasty recipes for four-pawed companions.

THE ICING ON THE CORPSE was released yesterday, so it should be easy to find a copy -- and if you have the chance, pick up Kneading to Die and A Biscuit, A Casket as well. You don't need to read them in sequence, but why not enjoy the opportunity? Nice chunky paperbacks, from Kensington Books. For more on the author, check out her website, here.

"The mother of poetry is ..." : Patrick Donnelly

Launching the St. Johnsbury, Vermont, version of National Poetry Month today, Patrick Donnelly came from western Massachusetts to read from his three books and work in progress at St. Johnsbury Academy in the Fireside area at the library -- and the only empty seats were in the front row, with extra listeners

even leaning against walls and columns to absorb the conversation.

And conversation indeed it was, as the Smith College professor and director of the Poetry Conference at The Frost Place (in Franconia, NH) opened his life, his writing process, and the translated poetry that he and his spouse Stephen D. Miller continue to bring forth from the Japanese. Students and teachers asked questions that led deep into both writing and love of narrative, which this highly accessible poet shared generously.

One particular phrase that will stay with me, I know, was Donnelly's comment about the presence of opposing reactions within a single poem: "I tell my students," he said with a smile, "that ambivalence is the mother of poetry."

Looking for a signed book by this poet? We have one (click here; when it's gone, it's gone), or reward yourself by traveling to one of his readings or lectures and picking up the one that calls to you most vividly.

No Fooling: 35% Off Our ABE Listings, To April 28

It's not quite lilac blossom time here, but we salute April as the month of spring anyway, with a major sale for all our books (they are ALL listed on ABE, already discounted by 35% from their usual prices -- click here to search them).

We have signed mysteries in lovely condition ... unsigned classic mysteries at bargain prices ... still some poetry and literature and a bit of fine press work ... Browse the listings, or ask us about something in particular (

Monday, March 23, 2015

Romp Among the Comic Strips, 1953: Max Allan Collins, STRIP FOR MURDER

Dover Publications just brought out a reprint in Mystery Classic form of a 2008 Max Allan Collins book, STRIP FOR MURDER -- and it's a light-hearted and entertaining mystery that brings back the '50s, celebrates the old Broadway's glory and adventures, and pays homage to two of the great comic strips of all time, L'il Abner and Joe Palooka. Fans of the strips will also recognize their feuding authors, Al Capp and Ham Fisher, lightly re-arranged and fictionalized into Hal Rapp and Sam Fizer.

But that's not where this (enjoyable!) story starts. Open instead with Jack Starr, a private investigator doing desk duty for his glamorous stepmother, Maggie Starr (once a striptease artist, now owner of her late husband's newspaper syndicate). Maggie's acting in a Broadway version of one of the comic strips, and Jack's supposed to keep her desk clean but make no big decisions.

Of course, that was before both Jack and Maggie saw the dead body downstairs from where the rest of the show cast was partying. Enemies of the corpse when he was alive? Lots of them ... and at least one is ready to bribe Jack in the most intimate of ways.

I'm delighted that Dover's brought back this deliciously entertaining novel from a master of the field -- Max Allan Collins writes nostalgia, humor, and wordplay with flair (yes, he has another side to his craft, political suspense, but we'll go there some other time). The cover is a gem, and the chapters include opening frames of comic art, as well as closing gestures. This one's purely a fun adventure, where even the crime is almost an illusion, and handsome Jack Starr is sure to solve it.

Looking for extra enjoyment? Visit the author's blog, here -- and have fun.

Policing With "The Troubles": Adrian McKinty's 4th in Series, GUN STREET GIRL

It's Belfast, Ireland, in 1985 -- and any de facto truce between the religious parties on hand is about to blow up. Meanwhile, Inspector Sean Duffy hasn't had enough sleep to investigate a crime scene, but there's little choice when his new young boss calls him to sort out a violent scene at the local upscale brothel. McArthur's eager for Duffy's help resolving a scene that involves a public relations catastrophe. Within a few more paragraphs, we know a lot more about Duffy himself, as he interviews the "working girl" facing him:
"All right. What happened, love?" I asked her.

"The gentleman and I were about to get down to business. And he said I should have some ... rocket fuel, he called it. I said no. He said come on and try it, it would make us go all night. I said no. He gets all eggy and starts screaming and yelling and I says, right, I'm calling security. He goes bonkers and tries to bloody choke me and I pick up the lampshade and clock him with it."

"Good for you," I replied.

"And I immediately called Carrickfergus RUC. I'll have no nonsense like this in my establishment," the woman in the red wig said. Obviously the lady of the house. ...

"Where is this rocket fuel?" I asked.

Chief Inspector McArthur handed me a large bag of white powder. Enough to power an army. I tasted it. High-quality coke cut with nothing. Probably pharma cocaine manufactured in Germany, worth a bloody fortune. I sealed up the bag and put it in my jacket pocket.

"Have you weighed the cocaine?" I asked the Chief Inspector.


Excellent. "I'll do it at the station and enter it into evidence."
Clever Inspector Duffy, right? But the real problem in the scene is the identity of the brothel customer, which the Chief Inspector already knows -- so after a bit more clarification, Duffy arranges for the players to pressure each other into a solution, just the way he's used to doing in his own neighborhood, where he's the lone Catholic on a block of Protestant roughnecks. And for that matter, at the station, where again he's the only Catholic in a team that's in danger daily.

Duffy's quick wit and smart actions serve him well, but in the next case about to drop on his shoulders, a double murder followed by a pair of apparent suicides, it's the other part of his nature that's going to hang him up: always a significant detail just out of reach. And although he has a steady habit of checking under his car for bombs each time he returns to it, there are other dangers he isn't noticing in time to stop the damage.

Like McKinty's earlier three books in the Detective Sean Duffy series (one of them reviewed here), the plot's tight in GUN STREET GIRL, the action fast, and Duffy -- despite his self-medicating lifestyle -- is an achingly likeable cop who's been pushed out of any chance of promotion. That is, until an agent from MI5 steps back into his life, in the most confusing of ways.

Count on dark situations, crimes stacking up, not all that much direct gore actually but a lot of emotional pain, and a poignant share of Duffy's enduring confusion about the women who entrap him. Add a very human version of the Irish protests and violence of that year, with the flavor of the month being loss ... and grief ... and soon Duffy's lifestyle is making way too much sense.

I was sorry the book ended. I could have gone on for a lot longer, looking over this detective's shoulder and noting the way his heart, like the heart of Ireland, was breaking over and over.

Highly recommended. And very, very satisfying.
UK cover.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

From Espionage to Literature (or Vice Versa): Olen Steinhauer, ALL THE OLD KNIVES

Olen Steinhauer's espionage books have made him one of my favorite writers, as his "Tourist" series forges a significant exploration of what it is to feel deeply human emotions (i.e., not be a sociopath) while tackling a job that requires lies, performance, and edgy loyalties. I recommend his books to all who've enjoyed books by John Le Carré, Alan Furst, Charles Cumming, Charles McCarry, and more.

The newest Steinhauer is more of a novella, and closer to Graham Greene than to these others. And the author provides warning of this direction in his front-of-the-book acknowledgments, which explain its genesis: The author watched a gripping dramatization of a Christopher Reid poem turned play (see the poem here:, about two once-were-lovers meeting for lunch, carrying with them their pasts and the division that has made them "old flames." Steinhauer then challenged himself to "write an espionage tale that took place entirely around a restaurant table."

The result does diverge from the tabletop a bit -- to the height of Henry and Celia's romance when they both worked for the CIA in Vienna, Austria, and the dramatic hostage event that each relives daily (or at least in dreams, nightmares). But the heart of ALL THE OLD KNIVES is this: They are about to meet, after five years of not seeing each other, and their conversation is to take place at a California seaside restaurant. (I'm not sure whether there's a traditional expression about old knives for the title -- I don't know one and didn't find one -- but the New York Times review of the book refers to Celia sticking verbal "needles" into Henry, and surely there's a sense of a thousand cuts here.)  Each agent arrives on scene with a different version of that hostage event in mind, and with different motives and deceptions.

If you're looking for the usual espionage plot (secrets hunted, secrets revealed, lives at stake, dark-and-stormy-night chases, some success and some bitterness), pass over this one and go back to the series. But to probe the agony and costs of being a field agent and government operative, as well as the inhumanity of government manipulations, ALL THE OLD KNIVES can be your book of the week -- or year.

At the heart of the conflict: Celia fails to grasp Henry's depths as an agent runner. And Henry never understood Celia-the-person or the relationship they almost carried forward. Layers of revelation peel away with each turn of the pages. John Le Carré has shown us how, as individuals, we are chewed up by international power struggles and forced to confront their inherent corruption while we struggle for integrity. Olen Steinhauer shows instead how the global can be decomposed, such that even the "big events" turn out to be formed by individuals and their passions, their attempts to love, and their points of fracture.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

THE CONNICLE CURSE, Gregory Harris (Colin Pendragon Mystery #3)

When a "noted detective" in a Victorian setting arrives with a sidekick who is male and admiring, it's easy to assume a Sherlock Holmes and Watson pastiche is underway. Whether that's what Gregory Harris intended with The Arnafour Affair and The Bellingham Bloodbath, I'll have to leave up to him -- but the third in the series, THE CONNICLE CURSE, is much too enjoyable and unusual to be pigeonholed so simply.

Athletic and determined Colin Pendragon and his more fragile partner, Ethan Pruitt, have made the English news with their crime-solving, so that Annabelle Connicle swiftly hires their services to solve the presumed murder of her missing husband. Colin's connections through his politically powerful father -- who doesn't appear in this book but whose effect is impressive -- enable him to challenge a handful of sneering Scotland Yard officers to investigate the case. And soon a body is indeed identified as Mr. Connicle's, and there are more to follow.

But Scotland Yard may have been a bit hasty, and although Colin points out the mistakes that the "professionals" and their coroner keep accumulating, Sergeant Evans and Inspector Varcoe aren't happy to accept corrections. What a pity ... because the case keeps getting more tangled, as the Yard men continue to misinterpret and to accept "common knowledge," quickly blaming the crimes on the strangers in the scene: an African couple hired by the Connicles and fully scorned by the wealthy and rather immoral neighbors on scene.

The plot thickens, and incorporating a street youngster willing to follow villains for a living adds a dash of diversity and delight to the investigations -- in fact, since Colin and Ethan are suddenly involved in two cases at once, it's handy to have a helper who doesn't mind dirty work or evading the law, as long as he gets paid for information achieved. "Our Paul is turning out to be quite an entrepreneur," Colin Pendragon gloats cheerfully. But Ethan, our narrator, is not sure that's a good thing. He's identified far more closely with the orphan, and the shadows of his own past keep getting called up, in spite of Pendragon's efforts to protect him.

And here is where this enjoyable traditional mystery (follow the money and cherchez la femme) crosses into fresh terrain: Colin once rescued Ethan from dire straits, involving mental illness, drugs, and more. And the two are, in the most tender and domestic way, lovers as well as crime-solving partners, unsuccessfully trying to avoid having their relationship noticed by the Yard's tough men. Harris spins the story deftly around this unusual focal point, and when it's time to resolve the tragedies that Mrs. Connicle is enduring, Colin's persistence on the case is strongly influenced by the pain he's seen Ethan face.

I enjoyed THE CONNICLE CURSE very much -- take two bundles of Agatha Christie and update with a shake of very British humor and a sauce of affection, and you've got the feel of it quite well. Moreover, I was delighted to find in the final chapter that there's another Colin Pendragon investigation in the wings via Kensington Books: The Dalwich Desecration. Shelve these with mysteries that are friendly, warm, and cleverly twisted in plot, while avoiding gore or dramatic abuse -- in other words, put them on the "read it now and read it again later to relax" shelf. That's what I'll do with mine.