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!



Sunday, May 08, 2016

NYC Legal Thriller, THE DEFENSE, Steve Cavanaugh (Debut!)

Steve Cavanagh's debut crime novel is a legal thriller set in New York City, mostly at the Manhattan courthouse on Chambers Street. It's a page-turner, at a wild pace, and full of twists, suspense, exhilaration, and highly satisfying conclusions. I would never have guessed THE DEFENSE was a debut -- but then again, Cavanagh has been writing for years ... as a lawyer in Belfast, Ireland.

It's not all that unusual for a British author to place a crime novel in the United States. And some authors seem to switch-hit on both sides of the Atlantic -- consider John Connelly, Irish but setting his Charlie Parker detective series in Maine. Then think about Adrian McKinty, another Belfast author who's also lived in Australia and the US. As it happens, Cavanaugh's first US debut, for a short story, came in the collection Belfast Noir, co-edited by McKinty and another extraordinary Belfast author, Stuart Neville.

All of which are great signs for what Cavanagh can produce, given the company he keeps! But if I hadn't checked on him, I never would have guessed Irish from reading the adept switches among New York urban dialects and the language of the Russian mob in THE DEFENSE.

Here's the premise: Eddie Flynn used to be a con man, but a situation changed his direction to law school and he practiced law for nine years. As THE DEFENSE opens, that hasn't been an option for months now -- some kind of disaster in one of his cases gave him a shove into deep alcoholic self-pity, his marriage is on the rocks, his 10-year-old daughter can't see him much, and he's definitely not going back to court as an attorney.

Except: Suddenly the Russian mob has him wired into a jacket of explosives and is demanding his performance at the courthouse -- starting now! -- and to make sure Eddie won't just yield to his king-size case of despair and opt for suicide by Russian mobster, they've kidnapped his daughter.

Eddie's life has been is a roller coaster of strengths and mistakes. But it happens he does know how to handle having psychopathic mobsters as criminal defense clients. Good thing, because he needs to be at the top of his game almost instantly, against a clever and well-prepared prosecutor, for the life of his little girl.
"Is Mom there with you? Can I ... please ... I want to talk to her. I want you ... I want you and Mom to come get me, please. I love you. Please come get me, Daddy ... please ..." She broke down completely, each shrill cry bringing her closer to hysterics. Her sobs grew fainter as the phone was taken from her.
What would you do under that level of threat? Yep. So will Eddie. And it looks like an impossible task, but after all those years, Eddie does have a few friends, and at least one of them is in the same courthouse.

A top-notch thriller with relentless suspense and highly memorable! And although the finale put a bit of a dent in my own recent memories of that same courthouse, I have to admit it's a good fit. I'm looking forward to more from Steve Cavanagh ...  and I see his next crime novel,  The Plea, is scheduled for next March. Nice to have Flatiron Books (linked to Orion and Macmillan) bringing these across the "pond."

Crime and Espionage in 1933 England, DIANA'S ALTAR, Barbara Cleverly

Charles Todd, Jacqueline Winspear, James Benn -- if you're already reading any of these authors whose mysteries depend on the actual history of the two World Wars of Europe and beyond, Barbara Cleverly's books belong on your reading table, too. Her first in the Joe Sandilands series, The Last Kashmiri Rose, came out in 2001 and grounded her character and "England" in the realities of Britain's failure as a colonial power. Sandilands begins to deepen as England's release of India means his own upcoming departure of the colony-turned-independent-nation, although it took until the ninth book of the series, The Blood Royal, for Joe Sandilands to embrace a leadership role in the Metropolitan Police.

Joe's not quite at the top of that force, but close enough to meet from time to time with the nation's political leaders. Personal losses deepened this character further, and it began to look as though he'd grow sadly alone in maturity -- but in book 12, Enter Pale Death, his competition with another man for the hand of a rural doctor seemed finally to bring him some happiness.

With that doctor, Adelaide Hartest, the new Sandilands investigaton (#13) opens in DIANA'S ALTAR. At the end of disturbing night -- whose details we learn much later -- Adelaide has bicycled before dawn to a small church in Cambridge, where she hopes to sit, think, and perhaps pray, seeking a way forward from the fatigue and anger shaking her.

But instead she confronts a dying man -- a young one, with a knife in his chest, proclaiming his own suicide. Although time, of course, turns longer and shorter in turns, as she sits with death, there's soon a constable on hand to assist, who in turn summons the local superintendent, Hunnyton; to Adelaide's surprise, this police office, after comforting her as best he can, asks whether Joe Sandilands is with her and moments later requests that she summon him immediately from London:
"Why should I? What's it got to do with Scotland Yard? The suicide of a Cambridge man in a Cambridge church?" She gave him a shrewd look. "The deceased would seem to have been an interesting man but surely of no concern to the Metropolitan Police? What's more, I would have thought ..."

He stopped her flow of protest by putting a finger over her lips. "That'll do, Adelaide! Look -- this here isn't a case for the Cambridge CID, I'm afraid. You'll have to take my word on it. I'll do the necessary for now but this is Joe's man."
The surprising presence of a man investigating in Cambridge for Joe Sandilands connects with Joe's extended responsibilities of liaison with the Special Branch, whose members Joe has described as "Twenty-six languages among them, guns in their armpits and fists like steam hammers. I try not to annoy them!"

To sort out this death and its importance to a dangerously international scientific laboratory in Cambridge (think German scientists, and more), Joe will need to immerse himself in the lives of the very wealthy and very prone to hurt and humiliate -- with high risks to all in his network. Adelaide herself has already seen too much and is in danger. So, for that matter, is England.

Espionage, crime, loyalty, and betrayal make this one of the more intense Joe Sandlilands investigations. Each twist -- and there are plenty -- is well outlined and intense, and the book accelerates in pace toward a dangerous confrontation, a revelation of secrets and pain, and two of the more grievous losses that Joe will ever witness.

A highly recommended book, and newly released from Soho Crime. By the way, Cambridge is home turf to author Barbara Cleverly, and her mastery of this crucial period in British history is laid powerfully against her meticulously portrayed university town.

British Gothic, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT CASTAWAY HOUSE, Stephanie Lam

The US publication of Stephanie Lam's debut novel, a modern-day Gothic set on the coast of England, is a perfect excuse to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea (or cocoa) and slip into another world -- one where mystery, desire, and suspense mingle, enhanced by startling moments of joy and discovery.

Like the instant of revelation of a flash of lightning, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT CASTAWAY HOUSE opens through the eyes of a small girl in a dirty dress, overwhelmed with longing for the grand house up above the cliffs of the British seacoast. But the storm quickly moves forward, placing us at the dark and very grubby entrance to the once-grand home as of 1965, as 18-year-old Rosie Churchill struggles to find rent for her first home away from home ... as a boarder in this peculiar rooming house. She's not that far away geographically from the home where she grew up, and her mother keeps trying to reach her by phone. But Rosie's got her reasons for running away.

Quite a few chapters will pass in this satisfyingly chunky book (500 pages!), with its pulsing narrative that flips madly from 1965 to 1924 and back again, before Rosie gets specific about those reasons. The damage to this teen, though, opens her to a number of compassionate actions toward the old tramp arriving at Castaway House, insisting he's stayed there before.

Twists of romance, friendship, and the strangely dark threat of a "dishy" man with a white Jaguar, leaving her unwanted messages and gifts, keep the plot stormy and Rosie's life precarious. In some ways it's a relief, then, for her to try to take care of Dockie the tramp, and to press for details of the artist who lived in the house a generation earlier. This artist, Robert Carver, is the other set of eyes -- and stories -- that Lam provides, with his 1924 visit to the home of his school friend Alec. Robert can fake for the butler that he's used to hot and cold running water as the grand home provide. But the emotionally charged atmosphere between his friend Alec and Alec's new wife throws him completely off track:
Alec glanced towards the door, and then whispered in my ear, 'She hates me because I've seen through her.'

I turned to him. 'What on earth do you mean?'

'Shh.' He looked at the open door, and then, loudly, 'Let's go out. I've something to show you.'

'Show me?' I asked, heavy with food and wine and not particularly willing to leave the house. 'Is is important?'

He squeezed my hand. 'Life-threatening,' he growled.
Rosie's secrets, Robert's secrets -- and it's Castaway House (and the tramp Dockie) who will tie them together.

Shelve this one next to Laurie R. King's dark British exhumations of the Sherlock Holmes "continuation" or the archaeological mysteries of fellow Brit Elly Griffiths; there's a tang of English despair that also echoes into the Charles Todd series. And underneath, of course, the dire precedent of Jane Eyre. Storm, grand house, secrets -- oh yes, leave room on that bookshelf. This is Stephanie Lam's debut, and it's clear she'll have more good mysteries to follow. Website here; the book is published by Penguin and distributed via Trafalgar Square Publishing.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ghana Mystery, GOLD OF OUR FATHERS, Kwei Quartey

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Progress?" she asked.

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

Obeng got in the back seat with Wei.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Superb Hollywood Crime Caper, in KING MAYBE, Junior Bender

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stinky said, "What other man?"

I said, "Never mind."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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