Thursday, August 17, 2017

Humor, Paranormal, but Solid Investigation, with Dr. Siri Paiboun in Colin Cotterill's THE RAT CATCHERS' OLYMPICS

A new mystery in the Laotian Dr. Siri Paiboun series from Colin Cotterill (Soho Crime) is always worth celebrating -- and THE RAT CATCHERS' OLYMPICS is worth stopping all work and just plain enjoying the ride.

Actually Dr. Siri, who's been a coroner for his country in the frustrating 1970s, is now retired. But in this 12th in the series, Siri and his wife Daeng figure out how to join their politically connected friend Civilai on an exciting trip to Moscow with the athletes from Laos who are competing in the 1980 Olympics. That's the year that the United States and 64 other countries boycotted the summer games (a protest of Russian's presence in Afghanistan at the time). So Cotterill cleverly sets up the competition as a smaller-than-usual set of games that can let even the poorly trained and mostly unfinanced Lao team still show up well and have a great time.

But before the athletes -- and Siri, Daeng, Civilai, and their friend and nurse Dtui -- have left the ground in their rickety airplane, an unusual change in the passengers takes place, and Civilai realizes there's been a last-minute, unacknowledged substitution among the competing sharpshooters. Soon the friend decides they've witnessed the start of a major crime, to take place in Moscow. The fifth of their usual group, Inspector Phosy, left behind in Laos, tackles the groundwork to figure out what's planned. When Phosy's hoped-for informant is immediately murdered, the team knows they are all in danger. And the planned international crime is deadly serious.

But that's really the only serious part of this delicious and enjoyable romp through Moscow's hospitality in THE RAT CATCHERS' OLYMPICS. From Dr. Siri's own tendency to abruptly vanish into a land of spirits, to his wife's wagging tail (a long story!), to the love affairs of the athletes, and at last to the rat-catching competition impulsively added to the games, this is a page-turner of the best sort: full of characters worth caring about, a plot with just enough twists, and lots of joy. But it's also crammed with investigative efforts and speculation. For example, when the Moscow-placed suspect disappears:
"He might have gone for a jog," said Dtui.

"Or a walk on the roof," said Daeng. "Insomnia."

"Or he might be out casing the scene of the shooting," said Siri.

"Or actually committing the crime," said Civilai, still feeling guilty for his failure.

The four were seated in the B block cafeteria with stodgy Soviet breakfasts in front of them. Two tables away sat the shooting team with Sompoo in the middle telling jokes.

"This really is a fine time for an assassination, you have to admit," said Siri. "The local TV stations have nothing but Olympic news and smiling citizen interviews. I can't even imagine a murder report finding its way into the newspapers for the next three weeks."
Whether you're fitting in a bit more summer reading, or adding to your admirable shelf of Soho Crime international mysteries, THE RAT CATCHERS' OLYMPICS will reward your purchase. Might as well get one for a friend, too ... I'm already listing the people in my life who deserve this sweet reward.

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

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Second NYC Historical Crime Fiction from Cuyler Overholt, A PROMISE OF RUIN

Ah, the delight of discovering in the first chapter that a book's been written by a gifted storyteller!

From the moment Dr. Genevieve Summerford -- Genna to her friends -- steps onto the scene in A PROMISE OF RUIN, the suspense and surprises of this 1907 amateur sleuth novel are both entrancing and intriguing. Entrancing, because Genna and her would-be beloved, Simon Shaw, share a passion for life and romance that can't be defeated. And intriguing, because there are so many aspects of criminal conspiracy that we've forgotten from this era ... and author Cuyler Overholt, in her second in this series, tugs them seamlessly into a neatly turned plot with just the right amount of risk and rescue for summer reading.

A young Italian bride-to-be has disappeared from New York's arrival area, where huge ships bring a flood of immigrants. When the disappearance comes to Genna's attention, she's sure the police will follow up -- and when she realizes they won't, she tries to do what's reasonable and kind in letting others know about the missing young woman. Harsh realities that she hasn't confronted before, like the overworked police force and the power of criminal elements, result in Gemma committing herself to the very risky process of trying to locate who is running a prostitution ring with a kidnap operation on the side, and how to locate the most recently captured group of girls. In other words, Genna is seeking out a "white slaver" ring, at the risk of her own comfort, safety, and perhaps the relationship that's already at the core of her life.

Overholt introduces early 20th-century Manhattan life skillfully and with flair. Her deft portrayals of city gang life and the cost of poverty are so lively and complex that I paused a couple of times to check the facts, wondering whether this author had created her own aspects to support the plot -- but indeed, she has rounded up and dealt back out again the most fascinating aspects of the immigrant gangs and local resistance, as well as the complications of the Tammany political machine. Then she adds resonance to the action with insight that Genna gains from early understandings of mental illness, applying her healing skills to both the boys at a community center, and the damaged women rescued from the forced sex trade.

To do all this and wrap it briskly around a neatly turned plot with clever twists and heart-warming interactions is quite an achievement! A PROMISE OF RUIN was such a pleasure to read that I'll soon be looking for more of Overholt's writing. And I am delighted that Sourcebooks has clearly scheduled this to be a continuing series of crime-solving adventure. If you can't fit the book into what's left of summer, give it to your bedside TBR stack, to warm the chilly evenings ahead.

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

Sunday, August 06, 2017

New from Jon Land, Paranormal Series Debut, DARK LIGHT: DAWN

Graphic violence alert!

With his second book this summer, Jon Land opens a testosterone-filled series of adventure and saving a threatened world, in DARK LIGHT: DAWN. The book opens the "Maximillian Chronicles," jumping sideways into the life of Navy SEAL Max Youngner, who stumbles across details that shed light on his father's mysterious death.

Max loves his career -- nothing like a life-and-death battle to make him feel alive:
"Take that, you f***er!!"

Did he say that or only think it? Impossible to say amid the firestorm raging around him. But he did know he felt buoyant, even joyful, strangely at home in this conflagration of violence he found himself embracing. The blood soaking him smelled sweet and coppery, suddenly not altogether unpleasant, even welcome, as he twisted away from the fighter's still convulsing form, finally slamming another fresh magazine home.
Fear not -- Max has doubts, and the very creepy revelations he confronts about a meteor, underground currents of darkness, and how his father's life became forfeit, well, those are just what he needs to shake his own life off one set of rails and direct it into deeper, more deliberate efforts.

Meanwhile, there's an epidemic possible, and Dr. Victoria Tanoury needs to deal with it. She's grateful for any and all help coming her way -- including the apparent messages from her dead fiancé, still taking care of her. When her dangerous situation and Max's crisis overlap, the two head into an equally risky re-lighting of a long-ago passion they once shared.

Rattled off in short chapters of just a few pages, this End of Days epic continues for more than 400 pages, bouncing between plot threads and crises. It's a great summer adventure for those who especially enjoy military combat novels and Dan Brown-style epic battles, including for the soul and the heart. Land, with Maximillian "brand" originator Fabrizio Boccardi, keeps the action explosive. It's quite a shift from his Caitlin Strong series, but very close to the Tyrant books he's crafted.

This is genre fiction with a specific tilt, both military and paranormal. If that's the combo you're ready for, settle in for a page-turning week of mind-blowing twists and classic characters.

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

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Crime Fiction in Venice, from Christine Evelyn Volker, VENETIAN BLOOD

You love the Venice crime fiction from Donna Leon? I do. Not only do her books carefully compose clues, stresses, red herrings, and police procedure (plus Italian and Venetian culture and cuisine), but the interactions among the characters -- especially Commissario Guido Brunetti and his family -- deepen the books and their impact. I often pre-order my copies of each new title.

That said, there's generally just one new Donna Leon per year. So to get an extra dash of Venice, one may indulge in less skilled authors who still have a good mystery to offer. And that's the case for Christine Evelyn Volker, whose VENETIAN BLOOD is released in August from She Writes Press.

Volker's mystery shows the signs of an early-career author, especially in the first few chapters. But it gets better, and I enjoyed the final twists, which involve financial dirty dealings and affaires of the heart and body. Plus, the book helped meet that Venice appetite. But don't count on cuisine, or depth of relationships -- Volker's catalyst for relationships tends to be romantic attraction, versus the lines of faith, loyalty, and compassion that Leon lays out so strongly.

Also, for a collector, there are some questions about books from She Writes Press, which occupies the murky middle ground between standard publishers and what used to be called vanity presses. The press president, Brooke Warner, is a regular writer for Huffington Post; see her explanation there, of her press's new arrangement, where established authors mentor new ones, included in the fee. 

In the case of VENETIAN BLOOD were Nina Schuyler and David Corbett. Yes, that's enough to make me sit up and notice.

So should you collect this and/or, more pertinently, pick up a copy to read? My opinion: Yes, if you specifically collect Italian crime fiction. No, if you're going to measure the book against Donna Leon and others at the top of the field. Hope that's enough to help you make a decision. I ended up pleased with the book's plot by the end, but it was rough to get to the middle.

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Gibraltar Crime Fiction, A THOUSAND CUTS, Thomas Mogford

One of the heady pleasures of international crime fiction is exploring a culture from the inside -- including the lingering effects, often dark, of a region's history. So the newest crime novel from British author Thomas Mogford, A THOUSAND CUTS, fascinated me with its setting: Gibraltar, that rocky headland off Spain's southern coast. Not only is the "Rock" a sentry location for the Mediterranean: It provides the remains of a 14th-century Moorish castle and the 18th century Great Siege Tunnels, which were expanded in World War II.

 We readers realize from Chapter 1's placement in 1940 that a deadly wartime explosion at Gibraltar's shipyard could be more complicated than the investigators would realize. But we're swiftly back in the present time with lawyer Spike Sanguinetti (this is the fifth in his series), abruptly taking on a new client. Is the angry and booze-addicted old man just a typical confused remnant from Gibraltar's underclasses, former sailors and soldiers who collapsed in place and never left? Or is there a more pointed reason that this client has harassed a wealthy resident?

Spike Sanguinetti is a fascinating character, not least for his sympathy for his mostly unlikeable new client. He's tangled in the case in more directions than he at first realizes -- understandable that he's a bit distracted, since he and his financée are expecting a baby very soon, their adopted child is having "issues," and the close friends on Gibraltar who usually support him have a stake in seeing the client's past hushed up, and the series of crimes on the headland closed quickly.

From the tunnels to the action to the emotions, not to mention the wartime suspicions that emerge during Spike's efforts, this book is a classic page-turner, rich with atmosphere and urgent with action and risk. It's my first read in the series and I found gaps in understanding some of the terrain, so given the option, I'd explore the earlier books first, before reaching this one. But even as a cold read, stepping onto Gilbraltar in Mogford's series, it's a marvelous addition to the summer reading stack -- recommended, for sure! (Note that Mogford is getting great critical attention in Britain, where he made a CWA short list for the debut of this series.) Glad that Bloomsbury brought the book across the Atlantic, released this week in the US.

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Gritty Alternative to Sherlock Holmes, in ARROWOOD by Mick Finlay

Today's the release day for ARROWOOD, a debut crime novel from Mick Finlay. The publisher (Mira) captured the book's premise in this tag line: "London Society takes its problems to Sherlock Holmes. Everyone else goes to Arrowood."

It's a great way to enter the Holmes world without trying to craft yet another pastiche. Consider William Arrowood a rough character himself, a former newspaper man whose scorn for the chronicled super-deductive high-society sleuth peppers his conversations -- and determines his attitude toward people in his South London slum who seek his help. If they reveal they wish they could afford Holmes instead, they're in trouble!

The opening of the book, described as "South London, 1895," sets the scene perfectly, from the point of view of Arrowood's assistant, Mr. Barnett:
The very moment I walked in that morning I could see the guvnor was in one of his tempers. His face was livid, his eyes puffy, his hair, least what remained on that scarred knuckle of a head, stuck out over one ear and lay flat with grease on the other side. He was an ugly sight, all right. I lingered by the door in case he threw his kettle at me again. Even from there I could smell the overnight stink of gin on his foul breath.

"Sherlock blooming Holmes!" he bellowed, slamming his fist down on the side-table. "Everywhere I look they're talking about that charlatan!"
When a young French lady in a bonnet and billowing skirt arrives to see Arrowood's help, it takes all of Barnett's skill to keep her case attractive to his "guvnor." She risks losing the sleuth by her admiration for Holmes, of course, and also be being French ... and female. But Barnett has the bottom line in mind, and negotiates a case.

When it becomes obvious that Arrowood and Barnett will have to spy on and probably confront members of a dangerous criminal gang that's already threatened their lives, the crime novel turns into a Victorian thriller, hot with action and risk.

The book's well written, with just a hint of "debut" novel in its pacing. Most appealing is actually the character of Arrowood's sidekick Barnett (a more emotionally complicated person than Doyle's Dr. Watson). Details of gritty and sometimes grotesque Victorian poverty come through, along with a finely honed edge of violence.

Mick Finlay has an unusual background for this field, one that may bear significant importance as the promised series continues:
Mick Finlay was born in Glasgow and grew up in Canada and England. He now divides his time between Brighton and Cambridge. He teaches in a Psychology Department, and has published social psychological research on political violence, persuasion, and verbal and non-verbal behaviour. He reads widely in history, psychology, and enjoys a variety of fiction genres (including crime, of course!)
Holmes fanatics are safe in picking up ARROWOOD because it steers neatly around the established sleuth's famous cases, keeping the focus in this down-and-dirty world instead.  The feel is very similar to the series by M.R.C. Kasasian, and I enjoyed the dark humor. Well done, Mick Finlay!

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Fracking, Addiction, and Crime, FATEFUL MORNINGS, Edgar Winning Author Tom Bouman

Tom Bouman's first crime novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, earned him a 2015 Edgar Award for the heart-rending and gritty investigation by a local police officer, Henry Farrell, in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Released today is Bouman's second: FATEFUL MORNINGS. The title is reflected repeatedly in Henry's discoveries among his neighbors, from wealthy to hardscrabble, as he follows a trail of addiction and related crimes, crossing the trail of a possible serial murderer -- one who must be both clever and deeply disturbed.

For Office Henry Farrell in Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, there are few simple, or simply good, parts of life. Stranded in a small and politically challenging job due to his own past failures, he's struggling to find some beauty anyway: in the forested landscape around him (riven by oil fracking though it is), and in the old-time music he plays with friends (he wanted to call their group the Fateful Mornings from an old tune, but they're the Country Slippers, a local joke about their boots). It's typical of Henry that he's also taking easy pleasure in an affair with a married woman -- a complication that will soon cripple his work, as well as his affections.

What makes this book -- all of Bouman's writing -- so memorable, beyond the cunning plot and painful portrait of this "Rust Belt" region, is the emotion invested in each scene. Take this simple moment of Henry gathering up (in the middle of tangled jurisdictions) a possible suspect who's reported a missing woman:
"Stand up, please." I patted him down, catching body odor that was sharp like cheese, sweet like bread or beer No weapon.

"If she'd dead, I didn't kill her." ...

I put an arm on his shoulder and steered him to my vehicle.

On the drive to the sheriff's, I thought about my visit to their home that winter, and about their history. You show up to a domestic call expecting to see people still in the grip of the fight that got you called out, clawing, screaming. You come to somebody's defense, chances are they let you in on a punch or two. You're the person they hate more than each other. That January night when I had pulled up to the trailer off Dunleary, my blue lights dancing off the white woods, with Swales's house barely visible through the tree trunks, it was quiet. I knocked and stepped inside. The first thing O'Keefe asked me was to turn off my lights to the landlord wouldn't know I'd been called.

... Neither spoke as I stomped snow off my boots and ducked inside. The only signs of struggle were Penelope's flaring nostrils, a butcher's knife in front of her on the table, and bloody paper towels wrapped around O'Keefe's hand.
Though the paths through FATEFUL MORNINGS are grim ones, the solid and often lovely writing and the irresistible characters make the book a compelling read. Don't expect an easy ending -- well, we're talking about the 21st-century equivalent of coal country here, aren't we? Even the land is hurting. And its people are in trouble.

Which means it's a good thing that all-too-human Henry Farrell is stuck in Wild Thyme, trying to hold a crippled sort of peace.

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

PPS: There are good parallels between this series and Julia Keller's West Virginia crime series. Click here to look at some Keller reviews.