Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Brief Mention: Denise Mina, BLOOD SALT WATER

Dave and I mourned the death, earlier this month, of William McIlvanney, a Scottish crime writer whose work forms the classic bedrock of "tartan noir." McIlvanney's grim and gritty police procedurals laid out the conflicts of Scottish urban life and criminal investigation, including the perilous thread that complicates each investigation: that the criminal and the investigator may know each other already .... and may even be family.

This danger of "life in a small nation" provides a dark and disturbing undercurrent for investigator Alex Morrow in Denise Mina's newest Glasgow crime novel, BLOOD SALT WATER. The four earlier books in the series, most poignantly The Red Road, establish Morrow as a feisty and smart Detective Inspector in the Scottish police, with a half-brother who's a vicious career criminal. Morrow's already had to defend her family and her own career from the backwash of Danny's crimes and colleagues. Did you ever wish a family member would just, umm, die? Hard to blame Alex for the occasional thought.

That terrible sense of family shattered into unmatching pieces -- by lifestyle, religion, and money -- caroms among the criminals in BLOOD SALT WATER. Moreoever, Mina's insight deftly portrays the struggles of small-time crooks trying to avoid becoming hard cases -- as well as the manipulation and power of those who run the show.

Powerful, well paced, engaging, and dark (although not especially gory) -- the book's already been on many "best of the year" lists, and deserves it. Best option: Read the other four books first, for added depth. But if you don't have time just now, go right ahead into this newest. Mina's such a pro that you won't feel you've missed out. Let me know what you think, once you've reached the end.

Political Thriller, FATE OF THE UNION, Max Allan Collins and Matthew V. Clemens

What a delight to receive a copy of this book from Matt Clemens, one of the top collaborators among today's thriller authors. In FATE OF THE UNION, second in a series that Clemens and Max Allan Collins began last year with Supreme Justice, former Secret Service agent Joe Reeder responds to the apparent suicide of a retired colleague. The opening chapter makes it clear that Chris Bryson was murdered by a very professional team, probably also based in Washington, DC, where the action unfolds. But Reeder and his quickly adopted investigation partner Patti Rogers, an FBI Special Agent, need to prove more than murder here; they need to show there's some point in opening up the case, when it would be so much more convenient, for a lot of powerful people, to leave it alone.

This series is set in the "2020s," when the authors picture an even more polarized national politics than today's. Embedding speculative politics into a DC thriller adds a fresh and provocative aspect to the writing of this team. Collins is the lead of the pair, and is best known for the Tom Hanks film based on Collins's graphic novel Road to Perdition. Clemens, in turn, is both a collaborator with Collins, and a steady support for emerging mystery authors. Their writing teamwork is well established, and develops great plot twists, clever red herrings, and strong characters that make the fast-paced ride well worth it.

The book's published by Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon imprint, so you may need to order it online rather than at your local shop. No need to read the earlier book first, but it does add some character depth to take this pair in order. Great entertainment, with a constant sense of how the book could easily become a film -- explosions, car chases, and conflict. And, oh yes, conspiracy. LOTS of it. A good fast-paced read for winter relaxing!

[Note: The book was released in early November, but I had to wait for Dave to finish reading it, as he called first dibs. Married life demands compromises! For extra credit, check out the author websites: Collins here, and Clemens here.]

Diversion, Poetry, FELICITY by Mary Oliver

[Did you notice that the New York Times filled most of its book review section yesterday with poetry??]

Life in New England collides with Robert Frost's poems so often. Stone walls, woods roads that fork, apple picking, running errands while talking to one's horse -- well, okay, not that last one so much. But almost. At any rate, it's intriguing to see which poets pin down the threads of life here in Vermont in ways that can't be forgotten. And I'm glad to extend that investigation to other parts of New England. (Beyond those borders, I'm no expert on the quality of match between terrain and poem.)

So I keep an eye on the works of Mary Oliver, Cape Cod poet par excellence (in recent years residing in Florida) and also poet of the heart, and of dog lovers everywhere. Turtle and frog lovers may also indulge.

Oliver's 2015 collection FELICITY -- oddly marked 2016 on the front of the title page -- is a sparse and thin volume with 81 numbered pages, many of which are blank or only bear a few lines. This may be helpful in absorbing the more philosophical poems, which tend to be also very short, verging on koan. One I enjoyed, called "Don't Worry," is four lines long, so this is half of the poem: "How many roads did St. Augustine follow / before he became St. Augustine?"

The first half of the collection has some of the nature/spirit conjunctions that make Oliver's work enthralling -- trees, swans, a storm --  but also rambles through light mystical observations, and I thought, "I've found more substance than this in her earlier collections."

But when I reached the last two sections of the collection, "Love" and "Felicity," I could hear the teasing and passion of this poet's voice much more clearly. And it was well worth the reading.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

India, Tibet, Terrorism, in THE RATABAN BETRAYAL, Stephen Alter

It took almost three years for this Himalayan thriller to cross the Atlantic -- and it didn't even require translation. I'm not asking what happened. I'm just glad THE RATABAN BETRAYAL is finally releasing on January 5, 2016, in the United States. It erupted in Europe and even India in 2013, and probably stirred up reaction especially in author Stephen Alter's hometown, Mussoorie, India, where the thriller's action mostly takes place.

I particularly wanted to read THE RATABAN BETRAYAL because it has a blurb from Eliot Pattison, whose Chinese-occupied Tibet fiction (Inspector Shan series) is always high on my must-read list. But where Pattison's series is thoughtful and often mystical in its probing of Tibet "then and now," Alter's thriller rides with special ops teams and multinational espionage along one of the most dangerous border zones of the world: the region where India and China clash.

Action coalesces around one oldtime espionage master, Colonel Afridi, whose center of operations is in Mussorie, a "hill town" created during British rule of India and now a tourist location where agents of both the CIA and India's Research and Analysis Wing, RAW, cross paths and compete for information and survival. Alter propels two couples into the maelstrom of crisis around Afridi, although takes a while to sort out who's working for whom, and why.

Here's a sample from mid book:
Afridi was staring at her intently.

"That's a beautiful necklance you're wearing," he added, almost as an afterthought.

She fingered the amber beads self-consciously.

"Than you. I bought it in the market yesterday," Anna replied.

Afridi gave her a knowing smile, then reached across the table beside him and handed her a packet, wrapped in brown paper.

"You've got good taste, Miss Tagore," he said. "Now tell me what you make of this."
Oddly, this passage captures what frustrated me in THE RATABAN BETRAYAL: The contents of the package sound vital but never come back into the plot after this moment; Anna is supposed to be very tough but gets self-conscious; and Afridi's "knowing smile" over a piece of bazaar jewelry makes him a bit creepy. Overall, I found the action unevenly paced, the character decisions often abrupt, and Afridi himself -- who ought to be appealing, but really isn't -- not living up to what I'd hoped. Alter's an experienced author (15 books), and the terrain for this thriller is irresistible to me, but the only person I really wanted to connect with, a local named Jigme with significant ties to Afridi's past (and the action that took the Colonel's legs), kept vanishing; instead, rather unpleasant agents seemed unable to create any real teamwork, and in the end, I felt like everyone became tainted with betrayal. (Which may be the author's point, I know. But still.)

Yes, I'd pick up another from this author, set in the same region, but more cautiously and with more relaxed expectations. If you're collecting India, Tibet, and even China espionage, this belongs on your shelf. If you want to be moved in some way, though, there are better prospects elsewhere.

Brief Mention: John Gilstrap, AGAINST ALL ENEMIES (Jonathan Grave Thriller #7)

The "high stakes" holidays of the year have rolled past, and we're ready to get a little giddy at New Year's. It's all good.

Still, there's nothing like a fast-paced thriller for distraction during the intense and sometimes emotional holiday season. My choice this December was the paperback original of AGAINST ALL ENEMIES by DC-area author John Gilstrap. This seventh in the Jonathan Grave series is full of the quickly planned, gun-toting interventions "on the side of the angels" that make it such fun to follow along with wealthy independent operative Jonathan Grave and his ever-present sidekick Boxers, aka the Big Guy.

This time Grave and Boxers accept a paramilitary op assignment that can't be official, since it's on American soil. (Usually their rescues of "precious cargo" -- kidnap victims -- have taken them elsewhere, at least for the bloody parts.) They're intervening to stop some very dirty politics, maybe even treason.

But what makes a Gilstrap thriller stand out is the interactions of the team -- Jonathan's mingled determination and regrets, the unpredictable soft side of the Big Guy, and a handful of women, this time particularly their new associate Jolaine, with flashes of others who'll be familiar to readers of the series: Wolverine and, of course, Venice (pronounced Ven-EE-chay), whose hi-tech espionage powers the team's adaptability.

In AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, Gilstrap also probes the mixed motivations of people jumping into terrorist-type group actions. If he's on target, we need to be working a lot harder at making the lives of pre-kindergarteners work out better. Oops, sorry, didn't mean to distract from the Special Ops mood, but even Jonathan Graves spends a big chunk of money and time on taking care of vulnerable kids. Did I mention guilt and remorse? Yeah.

It's a rattling good read. If you like action thrillers, and haven't yet tapped into Gilstrap, now's a good time. You don't need to read the other six first, although some go deeper into the emotions than this one, and the whole set is a pleasure. Glad to see Pinnacle Books backing this series (and congrats to the author, who announced at the start of the year that he was leaving his Day Job at last).

Vermont Diversion: Everyone's Mortal in WHAT'S THE STORY, Sydney Lea

Vermont sprouts poets even in the winter -- there is no closed season for their interactions with the landscape. But Sydney Lea, with a Pulitzer finalist among his list of collected poetry and essays, turns instead to interaction with neighbors and community, and WHAT'S THE STORY, his release this month via Green Writers Press, elevates the poetic reflection to astounding levels of love and awareness.

It's a risky direction: Sometimes the friends and relatives of writers aren't wild about being brought onto public pages. Lea dodges a bit of that risk by writing mostly here about people who've already died. This choice allows him to reflect and grieve, as he confronts his own aging -- not just a waning physical ability to climb mountains and loosen boulders, but the near-daily loss of friends and neighbors his age and older. Reflecting on the passing of a chair-building craftsman, Irv, dead at 82 while tilling the vegetable garden, Lea writes, "Irv's gone, and the earth keeps healing, not to be healed for now, maybe never. Probably never."

But he presses beyond the wound of loss to say, "How fine, that almost shy way the man would greet anyone he cared for, his smile barely perceptible, his ice-blue eyes cast down, his words hard to discern at first. Not that Irv was cold, only modest. He was what he was, irreplaceable among other things."

In WHAT'S THE STORY, Lea grapples to portray why each friend matters so much; he does it with precise yet rich descriptions of people and even of hunting dogs, as well as shared terrain. And that terrain is not just the ridges of Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire; it's also the passionate country of jazz, so that these "reflections on a life grown long" involve Charlie Mingus, Muddy Waters, and more. When he writes in memory of Jack Myers, a poet friend, by first replaying his own college experience of Mingus's music, he then tastes the state of "Jack's not with us" like this:
His absence may account for the sound, which has nothing, really, to do with the intricate magic of that Mingus sextet I listened to, nor with any line or stanza from Jack's mournful, witty, brilliant poems, nor is it the cry of sea birds. If Wagner didn't drive me almost mad, or maybe because he does, I'd say that the chord was a dark Wagnerian one. It washes over me the way the surf does a rocky shore.
After nearly seventy of these short reflections -- most just two or three pages long, and each one threaded so precisely that it's half memoir, half prose poem, and three-quarters jazz improv in words -- I wanted to shout at the author: Stop worrying! We are all getting older! Enjoying your grandchildren, your remembered childhood, picking a cemetery plot -- what's so terrible about all that?

But that's exactly the point in what Syd Lea's done with these short, bladed, budding items: taken the terror of aging and proved its tender beauty. So I return to the first page, in the reflection titled "Whatever I May Say," and re-read: "Though to touch its flame would surely be as painful as when it burned brighter, the candle's low now. On the table, just prior to guttering after dinner, it vaguely illuminates friends."

Read this one to savor the way friends matter, and love abides. Thanks, Syd, and Green Writers Pres.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Other Kind of Scandinavian Crime Fiction, from Helene Tursten (Swedish)

The eighth in Helene Tursten's Detective Inspector Irene Huss series releases December 15 in the United States, thanks to Soho Crime and translator Marlaine Delargy. THE TREACHEROUS NET (a 2008 title in Sweden) picks up with DI Huss as she's adapting to an empty nest. She and her chef husband Krister mark time at home by looking forward to the next visit from their 22-year-old twin daughters, while Irene's career life has turned stagnant. That's in large part due to her new superior, Superintendent Efva Thylqvist, who values the men on the Violent Crimes Squad, but not Irene. Isolated, nearly silenced, it's a bad time for her.

So when two murdered teens are found in the same week, Irene's determined not to let her superintendent steer the cases into the hands of only the men -- and her actions to hold a major role in the investigations mean she's confronting Thylqvist in risky ways, daily.

Add to this the overload on the squad, during a gang war, and the sudden appearance of a body walled up in a cellar, with indications that the death happened decades ago, and Irene's in the midst of the chaos that's become familiar in the preceding seven books: In Göteborg, Sweden, as in most other modern cities, crime races ahead of the available police force.

For Irene Huss, the overload and the simultaneous need to fight for her role in the squad mean she's not the cheerful, appreciative spouse that Krister expects for his spaghetti Bolognese dinner. In the face of his mild sympathy, Irene's ready to sound off, and dump, and admit she's upset by the violent deaths of the young women she's just witnessed.
"It's strange; I don't usually let things get to me, but these cases are just so tragic," she said.

Krister nodded sympathetically. "The two girls were so young, and then you find the mother of one of them dead. Perhaps this case is getting to you because you're a mother yourself. Our girls might be twenty-two, but you never stop worrying," he said.

"This killer worries me. I don't want another teenage girls to go the same way, but we're not sure how he gets in touch with them. We suspect it might be through the Internet, some youth site maybe."
And that, of course, is one of the aspects the book's title refers to -- the "treacherous" 'Net, where lonely and naive young women can be lured into "dates" that turn out to be a kidnapper's dream. For these two girls, at least, the process is already fatal -- and Irene soon realizes that the killer must be grooming multiple potential victims, as she sorts out the names he's using online. At least one of the girls has left a trail that Irene can soon see, as the teen had "walked straight into a trap. She had allowed herself to be drawn into the treacherous net. Easy prey."

Readers of earlier books in this series will be familiar with Irene's irascible and sexist but unquestionably effective former superintendent, Sven Andersson, whose health issues have sidelined him to the Cold Cases Unit and a short road toward retirement. While Irene struggles for traction on the predator and the cases, past and future, Andersson himself is caught in a net tossed by Superintendent Thylqvist, dragooned into tackling the case of the walled-up body. He too is facing a back story that involves a net -- this time possibly short for network, as in espionage, and perhaps taking the newly discovered corpse all the way back to the Second World War and related resistance.

Delargy's translation is straightforward and workable, as she lets the crime-solving unfold from its two major directions. It's hard to tell whether the slight stiffness to the text is a result of losing the rhythm of the original words, or actually part of a somewhat more formal, less time-pressed sort of mystery that Tursten's developed. Swedish cultural specialties, from the treat called a Princess Cake, to the joint vacation season for all the investigators, to the national unease around wartime history, stand out clearly here. Unlike the classics that Americans have often read in the Scandinavian field (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; the Wallander series from Henning Mankell), Tursten's investigator isn't drowning in depression, or seasonal affective disorder, or family dysfunction. Huss is easy to identify with, if also a bit frustrating in terms of her slow realization of the politics around her. Then again, aren't we all a bit slow to see the larger pattern?

Once Irene is on the right track, though, her pursuit is relentless, and eventually effective. Andersson's parallel investigation isn't as direct, and I thought it was unfortunate that it "bookends" the book itself, so we lose Irene completely as the narrative wraps up -- an odd choice of pacing. However, now that I've savored this series for so long, I suspect the move is to set up another Tursten book -- there are at least two more that haven't yet crossed from Sweden to America. That's good news: There's plenty of this series ahead.

There's no need to read the earlier books in the series before tackling THE TREACHEROUS NET. The crimes in those titles don't feed into this book, and while Irene Huss's home situation changes from book to book as her daughters grow up and her marriage shifts its ground, there's no particular arc of complication based in her personal life. So go right ahead and dig into this traditional police crime novel -- the other Tursten titles are available via Soho Crime, and have moved into paperback. Check out their reviews here. Thanks, Soho Crime.


Friday, December 04, 2015

Diversion: Poetry from Donald Revell, Tom Thompson


In the days of old, when I was in college, there was a profession called Computer Programmer -- which now is most commonly called Coder. At that same time, there was a mantra of how programming works, with the acronym GIGO: "garbage in, garbage out." The idea was, apply this in reverse and discover that if you want to have good output, you must write good code for it, and so on.

The same may apply to writing well: Read good work before trying to write good work. The rhythms and complexity build up in the ear and the soul. (Thinking about what I'm reading, of course, makes it work even better when I then think about what I'm writing.)

So I appreciated a diversion today into two engaging collections of poetry from Alice James Books. The first, the 2015 title from master poet Donald Revell, is DROUGHT-ADAPTED VINE. The old-fashioned blossom on the lovely cover misleads -- this is a collection that faces the power and terror of both life and death, in wonderfully tuned lines rich with imagery and narrative. Revell proves yet again that the heart of a good poem is the story it's telling ... framed in a well-chosen form and made vivid with haunted phrases that linger in the mind's ear. Revell even invites the reader to indulge:
 ... If I could turn
My head, I would see the heavy mourners
Holding coffee, stranded on the median,
In traffic. Lost to me now. Care to try?
One Chinese daughter. One imaginary boyfriend.
In the unfinished story, they live
Above a toy shop, one consummate lovely smile.
Tom Thompson's 2001 collection LIVE FEED, blurbed by Revell, catches some of Revell's forms, whether as a scaffold toward potency or as an homage to the leader. Thomson's storytelling also excels, with fresh new ground in a vibrant cityscape.
I will take the infant down
past the park to the sea -- where wakes dissolve
into moon's lead cage. That's our face,
love, buried in night's thighs.
Glad I picked these up today. Glad to share such good news, too.

Brief Mention, Charles Todd, A FINE SUMMER'S DAY

The title may be a bit out of season, but this 2015 title from Charles Todd is ideal for relaxing winter reading! A FINE SUMMER'S DAY is actually the prequel to the 16 other Inspector Ian Rutledge books. Instead of being set after World War I, it tackles the run-up to the war, including Rutledge's engagement to marry Jean Gordon. At the same time, it unfurls a mystery and a series of killings that reshape Rutledge's life, as well as testing his commitment to a police career. And it's available in paperback, to tote with you during holiday tasks and travels.

If you're a fan of this fiercely haunted mystery series, with its powerful insights into British life and class structure, this book is a must. I enjoyed all of it. On the other hand, if you're not yet a Charles Todd reader, I recommend that you wait on this one until you've read a few others -- here's the list in order, on the author's website: http://www.charlestodd.com/the-history-of-inspector-ian-rutledge. A FINE SUMMER'S DAY is all the better for having bonded first with Rutledge through his work, as the authors themselves did -- and the suspense will do you good.


Monday, November 30, 2015

Trust Your Neighbor? Not in Mette Ivie Harrison's Second Mormon Mystery, HIS RIGHT HAND

Mette Ivie Harrison's second crime novel, with its December 1 release, is a terrific addition to the winter reading list. It's an excellent gift for most mystery readers (the only exceptions would be devoted cozy fans who don't read other forms) -- and an even better gift to oneself, for a powerful journey into a little-understood but all-American culture: that of a middle-class community of Mormons, in today's Utah.

Like Linda Castillo's framing of Amish culture, or Donna Leon's of Venetian, Harrison portrays the gentle force of isolation that can arrive with a community where belief or geography draws a line of defense -- "people who live here" know each other, and know the rules of interaction, in a way that outsiders can't.

In the opening of HIS RIGHT HAND, the second Linda Wallheim mystery, Linda's quickly aware of unusual frictions around her. The scene is a three-couple evening out, the "annual bishopric dinner" where her husband Kurt, the bishop, is host to his closest assistants Tom and Carl, and all three wives. A Mormon bishop is not at all similar to a Catholic one -- the task is a lay leadership one, heavy with prayer and study, yes, but very much "one of the people" agreeing to manage the local community, known as the ward. It's all a volunteer effort, laid on top of working full-time jobs. So for Kurt, Tom and Carl are essential: "Without them, the job of bishop would have overwhelmed Kurt. They were his right hand in more than one way," Linda reflects.

But Carl and his wife Emma don't show up as planned, Carl's not answering Kurt's phone calls, and when Linda places her own call to Emma instead, the background conversation reveals fractures in Carl and Emma's marriage that make Linda suspect the relationship is in deep trouble, and possibly abusive.

A bishop's wife, in Harrison's world, gets as heavy an assignment as her husband but with no formal standing: Her husband relies on her to let him know when pastoral care is needed by women and children in the community, and to do her best to smooth over the normal life frictions around her. (And that's on top of being a somewhat "dated" version of a wife, plus mom.) Linda's ready to pry a bit into the lives of this couple who live near her. And when Carl and Emma finally arrive at the restaurant, she's on Emma's side in what might be an uneven situation where the men aren't respecting the women -- at least, as Linda sees things:
I wasn't going to let Carl off so easily. "We're all God's children, here to do His work to serve each other," I said to him. "The form that service takes surely matters less than the fact that we have a joint purpose." I watched Emma nod once and set her hands on the table, folded.

But Carl didn't let it go. "We may have a joint purpose, but our roles are entirely different. Women have one path to follow and men have another. We can only find true perfection in fulfilling our roles completely, and accepting that God is the one who chooses who is to have one role and who is to have the other."
When Emma opts to head home, away from this pontificating, Carl hurries out to join her. And that's the last Emma sees of him -- his death soon after leaves her drenched in guilt for her suspicions about him, her own harsher-than-usual words, and the possibility that she's overlooked what's going on in her neighbors' lives, when she's supposed to be paying attention and helping her husband know where to add extra caring and support.

Harrison's explanations of Mormon (Church of Latter-Day Saints) life can sometimes come across as a bit stiff and lesson-like. But her characters, especially Linda and Kurt, are rich and well rounded, and Linda's mix of guilt and curiosity, and soon her determination to fix things, are easy to believe and to empathize with. So are Linda's regular lapses from the submissive role she knows she "ought" to take with Kurt as she probes the situation and the people around her who may have had motives to
murder Carl.

A second powerful plot line is the fracturing taking place in Linda's own family, where one of her grown sons announces his identity and life choices in ways that make her unsure whether she'll be able to hold her family together. Soon the issues in her home prove to be a rippled echo of the ones stressing the community at large -- including, oddly enough, Carl and Emma's family, too.

Harrison's pacing is strong, and her portrayals of stress and mental illness ring valid, no matter what community or religion is involved. For many readers, this will be a first look inside Mormon family life, and Harrison is clear and proud as she opens the doors and windows for newcomers.

If there's a flaw here, it's in Linda's impulsiveness, which at times goes well beyond curiosity and the urge to make amends, into meddling and deliberately ignoring her husband's more tempered pace. I found the same uneasiness with her choices in Harrison's first book, The Bishop's Wife -- but let's face it, the poor choices of amateur sleuths are building blocks of this genre! Here, it wasn't enough to spoil the pleasure of this well-spun mystery and Linda's struggles with her beliefs about God and the faith she upholds. A really good read, and I strongly recommend this book! Yes, you'll get more out of HIS RIGHT HAND if you read The Bishop's Wife first -- but Harrison's explanations fill in the details quickly, and reading the pair in inverse order will be just about as good.

From Soho Crime, again -- a great choice for bookshelves that feature strong mysteries with unforgettable settings and all-too-human motives.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Katherine Paterson (Signed) Collection, Re-Priced and Available

We really do work hard to stay focused on first-edition mysteries here, mostly signed. But we've had some other specialties in the past, including Vermont authors of fine children's books -- so last week I pulled out our Katherine Paterson collection and asked The Chief (that's Dave) to review prices and make it all extra accessible.

And that's what he's done. If you're a fan of this author's work (and if you've read her, you're probably a fan; think Bridge to Terabithia, which unfortunately we've already sold, but all the books in the photo are here today), this is your chance. And if you're friends with a fan, these are the ultimate holiday gift treat for that person, signed by the author, who lives about an hour away from us. You can see the list here. (You can order there, too.)

Wishing you joy in these, and in the season ahead.

Dark, Twisted, and Clever, in JEWISH NOIR, ed. Kenneth Wishnia

Kenneth Wishnia's been touring a lot this fall, and there are still some significant appearances ahead on his calendar, from Holbrook NY (Long Island) to the Poisoned Pen (Arizona) to City Lights (San Francisco). (Check his website, here.) It would be fun to catch up with him at any of those locations -- but it's even more fun to read his new anthology, JEWISH NOIR.

The range of authors here is stunning: Jonathan Santlofer, Moe Prager (aka Reed Farrel Coleman), Wishniak himself, S. J. Rozan, Wendy Hornsby, Robert Lopresti, even Marge Piercy. And among the 30+ tales, there's even one from 1912, making its first appearance in English (in 1912 it was in Yiddish). I enjoyed the finale from the extraordinary Harlan Ellison. A special pleasure was a clever tale from Dave Zeltserman, whose writing is often quintessential in this area. Zeltserman's narrator, an embittered writer who's broken through into being well published in spite of an early and very nasty rejection letter, pauses to talk about noir itself, and I really like his summary:
... there are no heroes or happy endings in noir. And there's certainly no hope. True noir is about the alienated, the hapless, the broken.Things start off bad in noir fiction and only get worse. Moral lines are crossed that can't be uncrossed and characters fight a losing battle to keep from tumbling into the abyss.
Zeltserman's crime-pondering protagonist in this tale is borderline psychotic, too, which will give you a good taste of where his dark fiction tends to roam!

But Prager's tale "Feeding the Crocodile" is at least as dark, with a cameo for an SS lieutenant. And then there's the diversity -- Michael J. Cooper takes us to Jerusalem in 1948; B. K. Stevens opens with a faculty meeting; S. J. Rozan delighted me with Jews in Shanghai; and there's a midnight-dark tale of adoption form Travis Richardson that is probably going to sit malignantly in my brain forever.

More than 400 pages of malice, despair, conceit, sometimes heroic actions, and yes, alienation -- JEWISH NOIR should probably be read in very small doses, with a warning label. (Grim grin here.) But oh, what a collection!

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Texas Mystery, STILLWATER, from Melissa Lenhardt

There's a sure touch to the abundant dialogue carrying STILLWATER, unusual in an author's first book. But Texas writer Melissa Lenhardt is already writing across genres, with mystery, historical fiction, and women's fiction, and before this book went to print, it became a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers' MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest. Which is a long way of saying: Other writers already think Lenhardt's writing is darned good.

So do I. In fact, I was tempted to say, "Move over, Craig Johnson" -- but Texas isn't Wyoming, and Jack McBride, new police chief for Stillwater, Texas, isn't Walt Longmire. He doesn't have that permanent wound on the verge of despair. Instead, arriving in town prepared to treat his previous work with the FBI as career step, he's capable, sober, and open to an amazing romance that starts as soon as he meets the town's newest business owner: Ellie Martin, proprietor of a brand-new bookstore. Too bad the two of them have so little time to bond in other ways -- Jack's teenaged son isn't ready for his father to date (after all, Jack's still technically married), plus a combination of a new crime and and old one put Jack into overtime right away. Can the hot-shot profiler bite into what's gone wrong, or is he too far out of his home environment?

In addition, Jack has a bigger problem: his predecessor. When his son Ethan wants to push the boundaries, Jack must admit what he already knows about the Stillwater job:
"It's because I'm the chief that I can't do whatever I want. The guy before me did too much of that. I have to set a new tone -- and fast."

"He took his kids to crime scenes?"

Jack sighed. "I don't know. He was corrupt, is what I meant. I have to be extra careful what I do. Taking my teenage son to interview witnesses is a bad way to start."
And of course, Jack's going to have to earn the town's respect and challenge his predecessor in person, if he wants to hold the job.

Lenhardt spins a great story, full of lively action, intriguing twists, and a heavy dash of romantic tension. And when Jack's efforts to woo the bookshop owner fall apart -- not his fault, huge factors beyond his control -- the cases heat up and challenge all his skills.

This is a smooth and enjoyable small-town Texas mystery, with well-chosen police issues, strong emotions (criminal and otherwise), and top-tier pacing in the tension and suspense. Maybe Jack McBride is a little too balanced to take the Western prize away from Walt Longmire and all his depression and losses ... but reading one series and then the other is going to be a lot of fun, as Lenhardt continues to push Jack forward in his challenged new police role. Glad to have found this author, looking forward to more.

Is It a YA Mystery? BLOODLINES, Lynn Lipinski

The cover design, the promotions, the snippets I saw about this book all had me wanting to read it. Then, before I got around to buying a copy, the publisher sent one here for consideration. So I plunged into BLOODLINES, an irresistible mystery by Lynn Lipinski. And ended up with burning question.

Zane Clearwater, age 26, is a suspect in his mother's death by presumed arson at the trailer where she and his younger sister live -- and so does he, although he's paid a deposit on his first apartment based on his job at the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Zoo. The trouble is, Zane got fired on suspicion of selling turtle eggs; lost his sobriety that day and got drunk with his mom; and left the trailer park just about 15 minutes before the trailer erupted in flames. There are a lot of reasons to consider him a suspect. Worse yet, Zane's a blackout drinker: He has no idea what happened that evening.

Soon Zane and his sister Lettie, 14, find the outlines of their lives irretrievably blurred, as they discover their mother's life was very different from what they'd thought -- basically she had a name change and is in hiding from a possible spree killer who'd threatened her life. The siblings, especially Zane, have to know more, and soon they're in touch with the man who surely was Zane's biological dad, who'd been released by the courts for lack of evidence. The discovery of a couple of grandmothers and half-brothers doesn't make this any easier.
Zane wondered if his blackouts were inherited from his father. And he also wondered what other traits he might have inherited. Maybe that dark rage that overtook him sometimes when he drank? The part of him that itched for a fight or welcomed violence? The part he tried to keep clamped down.

Learning that his life was based on a set of lies was like someone had opened a locked door, but instead of revealing a brightly lit path forward, all he saw was another closed door. He wasn't even sure he had the energy right now to open it. The adrenalin of the day had evaporated and he slump in the chair. There was no fight in him now; all he wanted was a nap.
Meanwhile Zane's hoped-for girlfriend turns out unreliable, and the police are increasingly interested in Zane -- which his newly discovered relatives are only exacerbating.

This is a well-written mystery, with plenty of energy and good plot twists. Zane and Lettie are indeed engaging, and memorable. I'm really glad to have read the book, and I'd recommend it to .... well, there's that burning issue I mentioned. Zane is the protagonist who's viewing the action, and his issues are coming-of-age issues: naive belief that a parent will solve a situation, that a first girlfriend will become a wife, that the warmth of his newly discovered father means he has a "real family" to depend on -- and, of course, that he can somehow drink like his father and not screw up his life.

So this is a "young adult" (YA) mystery. Even the language in it, the sentence structures, the dialogue, say young adult. In fact, I don't buy Zane as 26: He acts and thinks like 18 or so.

And that means I'm recommending this for teens -- and for the many adults who enjoy YA mysteries. Share it across generations for extra pleasure. It won't make you double-check the door locks as you read, although Zane's dad is one nasty character. (Native American issues do rise up here, since the villain of the book is Cherokee. I leave that for others to probe, but please be aware of it.)

This is Lipinski's debut novel, and I look forward to reading more of her work. Her website is intriguing -- check it out here. The book is a paperback original, published by Majestic Content Los Angeles, and also available as an ebook.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Maine Murder Mystery, THE SCOTTIE BARKED AT MIDNIGHT, Kaitlyn Dunnett

This new mystery from Kaitlyn Dunnett (a pseudonym for Kathy Lynn Emerson) is a keeper -- a lively and all-too-believable escapade in the chill of March in still-snowy Maine. And if some of the characters are a little wilder than real (the woman with the python? the stage magician and his charming assistant?), the sense of performance is intentional: They're on a very much staged reality TV show.

Somehow (and you do know how these things happen, admit it), Liss McCrimmon's rescue of a charming Scottish terrier on an icy highway leads to her impulsive agreement to help this terrier -- and a second one, and their owner -- to complete a set of performances on "Variety Live." Subbing for the trainer/owner in the act of "Deirdre and her Dancing Doggies" ought to be a pleasure for Liss. She's a retired Highlands dancer herself, loves the dogs at first sight, and can easily take some time away from her shop in tiny Moosetookalook, Maine, at this time of year.

But while Liss soon realizes that the dog's previous owner may have been murdered, it takes a dangerously long time for her to put enough pieces together to see that the killer may come after her as well!

Kaitlyn Dunnett provides a fresh new twist to her series, and shows that she's getting better and better ... nicely twisted plot, great pacing, characters who are unforgettable, and the charm of the friendly dogs to round it all out. Count on Liss's hunk of a hubby, Dan, to back her up, with support from her best friends, too. THE SCOTTIE BARKED AT MIDNIGHT is the perfect "amateur sleuth" mystery to curl up with on a chilly late-autumn or winter's night. From Kensington Books, of course, adding to the shelves of this publisher's diverse and enjoyable "cozies."

Outstanding International Drama, MRS. JOHN DOE, Tom Savage

I'm not sure booksellers should ever feel at home with the idea of an "e-book original." There is something a bit frightening about the notion of a book that may never have pages or covers. It's a soul in need of a body.

So I hope that Alibi/Random House will soon move from e-version to physical book for the latest from New York City author Tom Savage. Author of six suspense novels and two mysteries (the mysteries are under the name T. J. Phillips), Savage calls himself the Mystery Man, and worked for years at the quintessential mystery shop Murder Ink, as well as being an actor.

With MRS. JOHN DOE, he neatly turns the classic espionage plot inside out: Nora Baron is enjoying and appreciating her upscale Long Island home, just before she gets the phone call that any spouse dreads --"I'm so sorry, Nora. It's -- it's Jeff. He's been in an accident. He's dead."
She heard the words, and they registered; she understood. Something happened inside her, a sudden feeling that she was on a stage, and they were speaking lines that had been written by a playwright. She gripped the receiver carefully in her hand and spoke slowly, distinctly, so that the audience could hear.
It will be many chapters before we understand what that stage image means to Nora. She's headed right away to England, to make identification of her husband's body -- delayed because he'd been without ID, hence a "John Doe." She's quick to decide: It's necessary. On the plane, she suspects for a while that she's being watched. And moments after she makes the critical corpse identification, so that cremation can be done, a personal message and a warning arrive. From friends of her husband? Colleagues? What she knows about his life, its secrets, its shadows, is barely enough to guide her first reactions. An attack in the notorious London fog sends her racing to continental Europe, to discover what complications have thrown her life into such upheaval -- and why Jeff has left such messages for her to follow.

Savage twists the plot in two startling ways, and Nora's transformation from wealthy home-focused wife to clever investigator holds up brilliantly. There may not be many mystery fans today familiar with The Scarlet Pimpernel, but still, MRS. JOHN DOE begs the comparison with that early novel in which a woman shows unsuspected pluck and skill at racing after her husband's politically fraught and dangerous shadow. I enjoyed each page, gasped at the swift twists, and came away with a hunger for more of the same, whether it be thrills, France, or ... books by Tom Savage. Author website here.

Fingers crossed, please, that the book gets its body ASAP.

Brief Mention, THE RECKONING, Vol. 3 of Niceville Trilogy, Carsten Stroud

The finale of Carsten Stroud's Deep-South gothic Niceville Trilogy came out at the end of the summer, and I devoured it -- I really needed to see how Stroud would wrap up the series, and there was a lot of waiting involved, as publication of THE RECKONING was delayed more than a year.

The blurb that fronts the book is from Stephen King and says, "An authentic work of American genius." I'd be happier with something more pointed -- say, a 21st-century follow-up to Faulkner blended with the malice and darkness of T. Jefferson Parker at his most wicked. Carsten's task in the final book is to decide how much victory Nick Kavanaugh and his wife Kate Walker will be able to salvage from a part-paranormal burden of horror and evil that sucks its energy Niceville. I completely bought the interweaving of Native American and plantation and greed -- enough to ride with the paranormal parts pretty contentedly. (Who hasn't entered a place that said "creepy" and known it was rooted in the history of what took place there?) Carsten's blunt caper humor that interrupts the tension is a bit heavy-handed, but deliberately so (think Westlake or Zeltserman). The book's startling in its shifts from one mode to the other, though.

Don't read this one unless you plan to read all three. (Check out this review of book 2.) And keep your expectations for the finale modest -- I found the endings a bit too neat, and a bit too sweet, considering all the tension and darkness that had gone before. But it's definitely worth the read, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the trilogy take its place as an American classic.

Oh. Maybe that's what Stephen King meant? Yeah. That works for me.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Espionage and Opposition, World War I: ONE MAN'S FLAG, David Downing

David Downing's six-book World War II espionage series, with each book named for a railroad station in Berlin, established him as a master storyteller who could play the passions of romance and loyalty like stage lights across the scenes of menace, risk, and carnage. It almost hurt physically to come to the end of the series with Masaryk Station and watch the characters learn what the war-torn, peace-torn city would become to them. And with the end of the war, and the end of the high-stakes spying that nearly destroyed them, John Russell and his lover Effi Koenen, an actress who has performed for the German High Command as John forcibly served British, American, Russian, and German needs, were free to walk away. To become, in a sense, ordinary, wounded people, able to make choices in large ways instead of just in small ones. To live in peacetime.

So of course, the series ended. To my delight, in 2014 Soho Press brought out the first book of Downing's next series, Jack of Spies. Oh, marvelous -- Downing simply moved back into the preceding war! In the second book of this series, released this week, ONE MAN'S FLAG, Downing takes readers on a much stranger journey than in his Berlin series. Despite the popular pre-, post-, and in-the-midst-of-war mysteries that are circulating from other authors around the World War I timeline (Charles Todd; Jacqueline Winspeare; Pat Barker), this massive monster of a war is less well known to Americans -- we had so small a role in it -- and Downing draws out details that surprise and challenge. In Jack of Spies, for instance, the German occupation of part of China launched the action (and I'd never been aware of it until I read the book). In ONE MAN'S FLAG, we discover also the perilous state of the British Empire, first in India, where Jack McColl is investigating gun-running efforts to feed a predictable rebellion against the long-time foreign rulers -- and then in Ireland.

And it's Ireland that has pulled steadily on McColl and his former lover, Caitlyn Hanley. If you haven't read Jack of Spies, sorry, this will "spoil" its plot a bit -- but you can't go into ONE MAN'S FLAG without learning right away what Jack did in the debut book of the series, his serious and painful betrayal of Caitlyn and her brother that smashed their relationship and sent them spinning to opposite corners for the opening of the war. But fear not -- that revelation's barely scratched the surface of the first book. Should you read it before ONE MAN'S FLAG? Yes, probably. You don't "need" to, as the second book retells, quite deftly, the core of the first one. Oh well -- don't worry, you'll catch up, in either sequence.

The point is, Downing lays out the intriguing but less well-known crises of the opening salvoes of the war, including Ireland's Easter Rising, which any history book or website will tell you right away was timed to shrug off British rule ... but naively, and with very poor timing indeed. Still, it's the crisis that pulls Jack and Caitlyn back toward each other. Neither has been able to walk away from what their love means to them. And this time, it's not just Jack who struggles with loyalty: Caitlyn's commitment to honor her brother's death sets her up to potentially entrap Jack, for revenge, maybe even death.

That's where the book title takes on increasing importance: It's from an expression that is supposed to be an old one, parallel to "one man's meat is another man's poison" -- this time, "one man's flag is another man's shroud." If Jack is to serve his British masters honorably, he may put Caitlyn in danger. And if she is to honor her brother's commitment to the Irish independence cause, she will do worse to Jack.

Downing provides more than a page-turning plot, and more than fresh views of the events of this "war to end all wars" -- he looks into the face of War itself, over and over, not just through Jack and Caitlyn's eyes but also through Jack's brother Jed, who rises bitterly to Caitlyn's probing challenge, to spell out what it's like in the trenches:
"I used to take the human body for granted," he began conversationally. "What you saw was what you saw. Just another person. And sometimes I still see them that way. But mostly they're bags, bags made of skin, crammed full of blood and flesh. And the bags get punctured so easily, and all that stuff falls out. Slithers out, usually. Brains, intestines. You see men who suddenly realize that their bag has split, and they're desperately trying to hold it together, but they can't. You see someone you know well, someone you've seen talk and laugh and eat and smoke, and suddenly there's nothing there under the nose but blood pumping out, and the eyes are still open, full of horror. And you think, Thank God that isn't me." He fell silent, as if remembering something.
Facing such revelations, small wonder that it's Caitlyn even more than Jack who sees the disaster that the Great War is inflicting on the peoples of Europe. Will either she or Jack be able to see their own work clearly enough to survive, in any sense whole?

Sign me up for every book of this series. As in his earlier series, Downing portrays with detailed intensity the life of honorable people and especially of clear-eyed women in his espionage fiction. The epigraph for ONE MAN'S FLAG is a Virginia Woolf comment on women, ending, "As a woman my country is the whole world." Caitlyn might say the same -- and Jack might have time to hear it, before his nation pulls him back to his own sort of trenches to soldier onward.

If your mystery reading is wide and varied, you may have come across the Diana Gabaldon books -- oddly, and poignantly, Downing's books inhabit a parallel universe of strong passion and irresistible forces of history. And, of course, risk. Danger. And integrity.

Which is, of course, why I recommend them so strongly.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Country Store Mystery Debut, Maddie Day (Edith Maxwell)

This week's release of FLIPPED FOR MURDER added a fresh and energetic investigator, Robbie Jordan, in a new series by Massachusetts author Edith Maxwell.

Writing under the pen name Maddie Day, Maxwell puts her five years of life in southern Indiana to work with a brisk plot and engaging characters. The country store that Robbie -- short for Roberta -- reopens as both a breakfast/lunch restaurant and a vintage cookware shop is based on a real business, the Story General Store in Story, Indiana. From there, the mystery leaps into fiction, though. Robbie's mom died a year earlier, and she's on the rebound from life's complications, including her own upbringing in California, without a dad, but very attached to her mom and her mom's family. That includes southern Indiana resident Aunt Adele, plucky and encouraging, an anchor for Robbie in the small town. Under Adele's urging, Robbie's bought the shop; rehabbed it and refitted it, thanks to the carpentry skills her mom taught her; and is pulling together a growing staff, in response to the brisk opening business.

But when the town employee who'd been toughest to get along with during the overhaul turns up murdered, with a strong connection to Robbie's newly opened restaurant, it looks like Pans 'N Pancakes may have a short shelf life.
"Poor Stella. But what does her death have to do with me?" I heard my voice rise and swallowed hard.

"She did not die of natural causes," Buck said.

"Oh, no. That's awful," I said.

"Do you mean she was murdered?" Jim's voice came out low and slow.

"Yup. And then somebody stuffed a cheesy biscuit in her mouth." Buck stared at me.

A cheesy biscuit? One of my cheesy biscuits? Damn. Double damn.
Author "Maddie Day" thus resolves the most critical component of any "amateur sleuth" mystery: the motivation that takes a friendly non-detective out of her comfort zone and into the risks of investigation and detection.

FLIPPED FOR MURDER steps up the pace and the stakes with a pair of parallel plot components. First there are two mysteries on hand: the murder of the very unpleasant Stella Rogers, and the question of who Robbie's father might have been -- something that's suddenly a live question, when she realizes that her mom's departure from Indiana so many years ago fits the time of getting pregnant. Was there a man to run away from? A heartbreak in the past? A danger?

At the same time, Robbie's exploring two sets of possibilities for her own life: the adventure of owning her own business, employees and all, and the endless wondering of who life is bringing for romantic possibilities. After all, although Robbie is an experienced chef and ready to invest, she's also only 27 and repeatedly startled by the attractive men in her life!

The back-up characters in FLIPPED FOR MURDER have charm and pizzazz. There's the mayor's daughter Danna, with her dreadlocks and flair for culinary creation; Robbie's friend Phil, grandson of a church leader; surprising Aunt Adele, with romance plans of her own; and the men, oh the men ... like Ed Kowalski, country-store competition in the next town; real estate lawyer Jim Shermer, ready to help Robbie in other ways; Office Buck Bird of the local police force, who seems to like Robbie but won't hesitate to arrest her if it's called for ... These folks are clearly sticking around for the next book, and I'm eager to see how Robbie invests in their lives, as well as in her restaurant and the defense of her innocence.

Yes, the recipe for Robbie's Cheesy Biscuits is included, along with a few others. Most remarkably, in her Maddie Day persona, author Edith Maxwell proves she can differentiate a new voice for her woman-centered "cozy" mysteries. The core of each of her four series (three already in print, one more coming in 2016)  is a woman standing up for herself and wondering what life's bringing her, while making strong, decisive choices on what to accept and what to walk away from. But the professions, surroundings, and -- as in FLIPPED FOR MURDER -- the casts of characters are sharply separate, intriguing, and promise a lot of fun ahead.

Kensington Books offers a teaser for the next in the country-store mystery series, Grilled for Murder, at the end of this debut. It's clearly going onto my "plan to get the next one" list!

PS -- it's well worth visiting Edith Maxwell's author website. Here's the webpage for the country store mysteries, and it's easy to navigate to the author's Events listing, too. Why not get two copies -- one for yourself, one for a holiday gift -- and get them signed by the author? She'll be mostly in Massachusetts, but there are some events this coming week in the Midwest, and sure to be more, as her research issues the call of the road!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Risk, Danger, and Love, in THE HOT COUNTRIES, Timothy Hallinan, Thailand

The seventh Poke Rafferty Bangkok thriller is out -- and it's a fantastic wrap-up to this part of the series. THE HOT COUNTRIES tackles crime in one of the world's most notorious cities for crime, but from the point of view of a travel writer who's fallen hopelessly and forever in love ... with Bangkok, with his wife Rose (who knows the sex trade from the inside), and with his firmly adopted daughter Miaow. The trouble is, love may have put its rose-colored lenses in front of some other parts of Poke's life, where it's not a wise idea to feel mushy and warm about what's going on.

The action opens with a moody and sweet scene at the Expat Bar, a local men's hangout where Poke's wandered more often than usual lately, escaping the surge of British TV watching that Rose and Miaow (or Mia, in her new teen persona) are indulging in. The oldtimers at the bar have made him welcome for years. So in Poke's mellow evening, there's no reason to worry about the presence of a new fellow in the line-up at the bar, Arthur Varney. At least, not until Poke realizes that Varney is the mover-and-shaker behind some very threatening messages coming his way, messages that threaten his family (and by the way, Rose is pregnant) and also his friends. Especially at risk is Treasure, a street waif who's seen horrendous abuse and is recovering very slowly after Poke's managed to settle her into a group home for kids who share her past experience. And the threat is being delivered via messages to Poke himself.
Treasure says, "I'm frightened."

"I know," Poke says. "But we're not just going to keep you away from him. We're going after him, and when we find him, you'll never have to think about him again."
A rash promise.

Here's where that highly technical term "part of a series" come into play. Yes, this is number 7 in Timothy Hallinan's Bangkok series, but it's also the third -- and completing title -- of a set of the Rafferty books that focus on how and whether Treasure can actually be saved from both the horrors of her past life and the overwhelming power and wealth of her abuser(s). As he did with number 6 (For the Dead), Hallinan is playing Poke Rafferty's almost naive drive to save the people he cares about, against the sweaty tropical weight of a culture that's almost given up on its vulnerable members.

Although Poke is highly motivated to fight the criminals battering his life, he's truly an "amateur sleuth" in the sense of the genre definition: no martial arts skills, no amazing weapons, not even a trained sniper on his side. But there are those old men from the Expat Bar ... a police officer who's a friend, even if a disgraced one ... and some women and "ladyboys" who recognize that Poke himself is worth saving.

The people who come through for Poke do so because he's earned their loyalty. Most of all, this time, the heroes include his own daughter, who's been through a lot herself. Astute readers will notice Miaow's steady progress toward taking responsibility for resisting evil and asserting her own amazing future -- so the book's ending is especially satisfying, as well as surprising in the best of ways.

I do hope this isn't the "final" Poke Rafferty book, because this stretch of intense and suspenseful thrillers set in a wickedly complex and dangerous Thai city has given me a really good ride! Keep them rolling, Tim Hallinan and Soho Crime ... please.

[PS - if you're a reader who stays WAY away from thrillers that include sexual abuse, you have my sympathy ... and my assurance that even though that's a major crime in the Poke Rafferty series, it's portrayed as a justice issue, not as porn. Safe to read these, truly.]

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Texas Rangers & Western Bioterrorism, STRONG LIGHT OF DAY, Jon Land

Jon Land brings us a new adventure with Caitlin Strong, a fifth-generation Texas Ranger who's still prying loose the tales of her grandfather's and father's exploits in the tough-minded law enforcers. In STRONG LIGHT OF DAY, she and her lover Cort Wesley are galvanized into action by the sudden disappearance of 30 students from Cort Wesley's son's school -- including his son. Although there's no ransom demand, what else could this be but a major kidnapping, immaculately planned?

To discover where the students are, and make a workable plan for their rescue, Strong and her team (yes, including her massive assistant Guillermo Paz, when he's not seeking paranormal advice) must probe the local wing of the Russian mob. Land deftly interweaves the conflicts of an earlier generation to show how inevitable it is that the mob would pick Strong's Lone Star State for the launch of a major bioterrorism plot.

This is a fast-paced thriller, with a bit less of the supernatural than some of the earlier ones in the series. Instead of ghostly presences, there's a major disturbance on the home front, as Cort Wesley's boys step into action, clearly the next generation getting involved. Count on a hint of Romeo and Juliet too, as Cort Wesley's family took one side of the law, Caitlin Strong's the other, at least in the past. Did their interests ever coincide? What opened the way for the current generation's intricate entanglement?

You don't need to read the others in the series before this one (this is number seven - click here for Land's blog post on how Caitlin Strong was born as his fierce and wonderful character), although some things will be clearer if you have. Pick up a copy for a fast ride with just the right amount of "it hasn't happened yet but it could" -- and plenty of lively firefights, but not much in-your-face gore. I'm a fan of the SUV combat scenes, myself!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Brief Mention of KEEPER'S REACH, Carla Neggers

There are so many subgenres of "mysteries" now -- with the most familiar being the endpoints of "cozy" (a traditional amateur-sleuth version with most violence taking place offstage and little specific description of any injuries or deaths), and hard-boiled (drenched in grim determination to solve the crime and bring the perpetrator to justice -- which may or may not involve actual court proceedings, and is likely to include a sturdy dose of depression and substance abuse).

I enjoy and appreciate the full spectrum, including its modern international versions and the related but differently paced espionage and "young adult" sleuth fiction.

One area I don't read a lot of, though, is romantic mysteries. Still, I read at least one every year, because I so much enjoy the New England and Ireland settings and complex, maturing characters provided by Carla Neggers. Her newest in the Sharpe and Donovan series came out in August: KEEPER'S REACH, set in Maine, and in the Cotwolds of England. I saved my copy for relaxing, and enjoyed it earlier this weekend.

Emma Sharpe, an art crimes expert, is happily moving toward her scheduled marriage to Colin Donovan, and the couple are learning how to share some secrets and protect others in their dual roles as FBI agents. The art thief they've pursued through the four earlier books is very much at the center of KEEPER'S REACH -- and so are the Donovan brothers, especially Mike this time. Add in winter, transatlantic investigations, and a shadow from Mike's military past, and the plot quickly grows complex. Watch for plenty of appearances by Father Finian Bracken, too.

St. Brigid's cross plays a role in KEEPER'S REACH.
I enjoyed all the interactions in the book, particularly the way Neggers handles gender differences in people committed to fast-paced and dangerous work. I didn't see the final twist coming -- maybe I missed a clue or two? -- but I'm satisfied that the complications of modern crime-solving, seasoned with romance, could indeed work out to the situations in this book. It's a good read, easy to enjoy, and full of memorable scenes -- and that, of course, forms the ultimate combination of a book well worth recommending. I'll be putting this title onto the gift list for a couple of my friends at the end of the year!

PS - For extra fun, check out the author blog for Carla Neggers, here.

Vivid History, and Reasons to Honor "Indigenous Peoples Day"

Nonfiction mystery this time!

Sometimes the mysteries of the U.S. mail baffle me. A page-proof copy of GLOOMY TERRORS AND HIDDEN FIRES by Ronald M. Anglin and Larry E. Morris arrived here a month or so ago, and when I saw "October 10" as the release date, I assumed it meant 2015. Actually the book was published a year ago. But I'm very glad it arrived here anyway, with its compelling U.S. history and narrative of the life of an early explorer.

John Colter, who traveled with Merriweather Lewis and William (Bill) Clark in their famous early-1800s expedition sponsored by Thomas Jefferson, could almost have had his own book on the strength of his work with the noted explorers "West of the Mississippi." But he became far more recognized for the generously mythologized episode in his life that happened in 1808, when he supposedly accepted a challenge from a group of Blackfeet (Native Americans). He ran -- naked and shoeless -- for his life, outracing the indigenous people he had already deeply offended by trespass, theft, and the deadly shooting done by his partner. Not only did he make his way through the "wilderness" alone for eleven days, half starving en route -- but he became known as the man who'd bring Yellowstone itself to national notice, and he survived a few more years, to become legendary.  "Colter's Run" is still observed as a race today.

What Anglin and Morris do with their book is trace and retrace Colter's sparsely documented life. Working from records kept by others -- Colter left none -- they build a forceful tower of speculation that eventually stands on its own, to describe the frontiersman himself.

But far beyond hanging flesh onto the bones of legend, these authors outline bluntly the repeated, deliberate, and deceitful treatment by the explorers, of the tribal peoples who welcomed, guided, supported, and often rescued them. By the time I'd finished the first three chapters, I was mightily sickened by the actions of the "white men" who'd probed the Western lands, and even more horrifid by the actions that followed, whether by settlers or by politicians. In the words of the authors:
Four short years into the nineteenth century, Lewis and Clark had failed to understand the Lakota for want of an interpreter -- and also for want of a desire to treat the Indians as equals. Sadly, this misunderstanding prefigured an entire century of false impressions, misreadings, distrust, and tragedy. On that pleasant day of September in 1804, when Colter looked up to see his horse gone, he could not have imagined what that missing horse would someday symbolize.
So I'm recommending GLOOMY TERRORS AND HIDDEN FIRES as a book to open on "Columbus Day" (today) or any time this coming winter. Ignore the flawed introductory material -- the chapters themselves are full of detail and well written. The passion of the two historians rings clearly, and they document their narrative and assertions -- and in particular their view of the interactions of the early invading entrepreneurs and the Lakota Sioux nation -- in abundant detail. It's a page-turner, and may also be a mind changer. It was for me -- I think it's long past time to make the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. It's the least we can do to acknowledge the presence of the nations of tribal peoples who were so terribly dealt with for so long, and who still struggle for the treaty rights that once seemed legally binding.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Debut "Clock Shop" Mystery, JUST KILLING TIME, Julianne Holmes

It's fun to see the pseudonym in action, but there's no dark secret here: Julianne Holmes is a pen name for Sisters in Crime New England (and Boston drama!) leader Julie Hennrikus. Her debut mystery is releasing October 6 from Berkley Prime Crime, and it's a lively and enjoyable read -- JUST KILLING TIME.

Ruth Clagan is a clockmaker, like her grandfather G.T. (for Grandpa Thom). She's part of the fourth family generation in the trade, and loves her work. And her grandfather -- even though she's been estranged from him recently. Now, a bad marriage and divorce behind her, she's ready to reach out again to the person who most embodies home for her, in western Massachusetts.

So it's a terrible shock to get the worst possible news, while driving, from a lawyer on the phone -- her grandfather is dead.
They'd found the postcard I sent him at his shop, the Cog & Sprocket, and had been trying to reach me all week. The reading of the will was today. Would I possibly be able to make it? ...

"I've got it," I said. "I'll be there as soon as possible. I don't even, I mean, wow, this is starting to sink in. What happened? Had G.T. been sick? We've been out of touch. I'd hate to think I wasn't there to say good-bye." There was a long pause on the phone. For a second, I thought we'd been disconnected.

"Oh, Ruth, there's no easy was to say this. ... he was being robbed at the time. The police are treating it as murder."
Ruth rides a roller-coaster of grief as she drives five hours to her grandfather's shop, and the hometown that was once her own. She's quickly aware that his clock shop is now hers -- and she needs to finally meet her grandfather's recent second wife, the one from the marriage just after her own, the woman who took the place of Ruth's own beloved grandmother.

But there are plenty of things to sort out that have nothing to do with that past conflict over G.T.'s re-marriage and her own ill-fated one. Why are so many clocks crowded into the shop? Are there missing items, and are they significant? How much of her grandfather's death is tied to his business -- and how much to an attempt to develop the small town, increasing the natural frictions among neighbors new and old?

Julianne Holmes crafts a marvelous set of characters, especially Ruth Clagan, smart, serious about her craft and her art, and willing to change her mind as new information and experience come her way. The pace of the book says "cozy" -- there are moments of suspense but none of that intense sort of riskiness that makes a reader get up to check that the door is locked -- and the affections among the characters mingle with a bit of gentle romance-as-a-possibility. The clockmaking is a new slant in this field, and a great pleasure to read about, from historic clocks to mechanisms to controversies.

Best of all, Holmes establishes the scene for her series: a small town in the throes of growing up, and an amateur sleuth, Ruth Clagan, who takes action out of the best motives: love and loyalty.

Do pick up this debut; it's clear the series will be well-rounded and delightful. Thanks, Julianne Holmes (and Julie Hennrikus: for more on the two alter egos, check the website here).

Worth Fighting For, in THE VILLE RAT, Martin Limón

One look, and the two crime investigators commit themselves to finding the young woman's killer. Yes, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are tough members of the 8th U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division in Seoul, in 1974 -- they've seen a lot of the underside of the occupied city and its surroundings, in South Korea and the DMZ (and sometimes they've crossed the line to the sadder half of the divided nation). But a beautiful Korean woman in traditional feminine clothing, clearly murdered and discarded at a frozen river, gets the guys worked up.

The 11th in Martin Limón's passionate crime series may be the clearest yet in showing what George and Ernie treasure in Korea, from its women to its people of honor and to their counterpart on the Korean National Police side of things, Inspector Gil Kwon-up, better known as Mr. Kill. So when a black-market scheme with American backing turns out to be linked to multiple deaths, and to abuse of an even younger woman, maybe a teen, kidnapped into sexual servitude, the investigative partners refuse to back off.

And they've got plenty of reason to keep pushing on the entwined cases, as Mr. Kill wants them to handle the military aspects, where he can't use his own men -- and a scrawny Caucasian, apparently former military himself, and known only as the Ville Rat, flags them down near the scene of a crime:
"I had to stop you," the man said, breathless. His voice was hurried. Green eyes darted from side to side. "He shouldn't have done it," he said.

"Who?" I asked.

It was as if he hadn't heard me.

"She just wanted her freedom, that's all."

"Who are you talking about?" I shouted.
But when Ernie switches off the engine and the two try to catch up with their unexpected informant, he runs deftly away from them, calling back, "You were almost there!"

The two actually have a lot of miles to cover, and a lot of bars in which to ask about the mysterious shipments they realize are taking place there, before the pieces start to come together. They even need to rely on Strange -- that is, Harvey, an informant inside the military, to figure out what's up.

It turns out that two generals of different divisions are using George and Ernie against each other, and it looks like they'll be crushed in a rat trap within the military if they keep in pursuit of the criminals. But, did I already mention they can't let go of this one?

Limón always spins a good tale, full of details of Korean life and culture, as well as the passions of the men who've been drawn to its exploration. This is one of the best -- with a swift pace, great twists of action and revelation, and a heartfelt sweetness interwoven with the fierce chases and escapades.

Sure, you can read this one without the other 10 -- and it will be a good introduction to Limón's series. Then pick up the others, each with a very different approach. This is one of my faves among the international crime series that Soho Crime is publishing, and I look forward to re-reading them all over the winter. Worth every page!

Friday, October 02, 2015

Mysteries for Kids, Fresh, New, Exciting (Shelley Tougas, Kekla Magoon)


Have you noticed who talks about the Nancy Drew books? Yes, I'm afraid so -- it's the 50+ crowd. It's not the kids, except for the ones who are reading "retro." And don't even ask about the Bobbsey Twins. The Hardy Boys? Those are on those cute mugs and T-shirts you can buy online for older co-workers.

But there are fresh new mysteries this season that are so good, there's no need to mourn the old character series. And adult readers have the fun of purchasing these "for the kids" and indulging in going cover to cover themselves, rapidly, before wrapping the gifts.

Take FINDERS KEEPERS by Shelley Tougas, for starters. This is a "middle grades" mystery -- the protagonists are ages 10 and 11, and kids usually "read ahead" by at least a year, so 9-year-olds are headed for this book. Tougas, a Wisconsin author, knows her age range well, and spins an adventure that has to do with the family summer cabin being put up for sale in the tough economy, so that Christa is facing the horrible possibility of no trees to climb, no lake to swim in -- and an endless series of summer crafts workshops that her teacher parents will sign her up for. Ugh!

Christa's biggest talent is her imagination. She can turn create a gold-panning adventure out of simple kitchen tools and a few other items, and new neighbor Alex Clark, just a year older, has parallel skills. But it's Alex's grumpy Grandpa -- soon to be the official "babysitter" for Christa, too -- who provides the real excitement, because his mother (long ago) might have held -- and hidden! -- a treasure trove of cash belonging to gangster Al Capone.

Tougas nimbly escorts the kids through figuring out who Capone was and why his money would be scary. If you find it, can you keep it -- to rescue your family's summer? Or is it cursed and would it ruin your life? Who else is looking for it? Escapades multiply, and even adults helping younger kids read this will be surprised by some of the twists and turns. It's fun! (Check the author website for her other middle-grades mystery, too.)

Closer to adult level in terms of ethical choices and dangers is SHADOWS OF SHERWOOD by Kekla Magoon. This is the first "Robyn Hoodlum Adventure" and it's a doozy. Robyn, with her light-brown skin and braided kinky hair, fits in well in her neighborhood of Nott City, where her parents are important politically, and of "opposite" heritage -- one dark, one light. But when the greedy governor of the region sends his henchmen (henchwomen?) to lock up all the people capable of resisting him, Robyn escapes the net and connects with the rebels of nearby Sherwood.

Adult readers, and many younger ones, will realize right away that this is a play on the old tale of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, but the path that our Robyn takes out of her comfortable life and into exile -- most wanted fugitive! -- is unexpected and suspenseful. Plus there's a generous dash of mythology involved, with the "old" myths of the moon having some influence on what's open to Robyn -- and to how she'll manage without her parents.

A few times, I felt like Magoon missed a moment when things could have been tougher or sadder; Robyn's new friends call her "mean" a couple of times, with reason, and I would have liked to see Robyn struggle and grow more around that issue. (I'm a fan of Peter Abraham's insistence that the author's job is to make things harder on the protagonist.) But by dodging that kind of pain, Magoon keeps the story at a more general level, far removed from the risks and losses of, say, The Hunger Games trilogy. Wise older people lend a hand to Robyn and her allies; youngsters come around to her side instead of betraying her; and there's a minister in training named Tucker (yes, as in Friar Tuck!) who creates a safety zone for the vulnerable child rebels.

I couldn't put it down -- the page count, admittedly with large type, short chapters, and plenty of white space, is 355, but the action is swift, the characters need hugs (and make do with an arm around each other's shoulders), and there are no distractions from the brisk forward motion. At the adult level, this would have been classified as a thriller, and thus would be in the mystery field -- for kids, though, it's more of an adventure type. The ending signals "series" very clearly. Robyn has a lot more to achieve! But the skills and insight that she's gained by the end of this very good book are going to serve her well in the missions that clearly lie ahead of her. It's going to be really, really hard to wait for the sequel! Author website here -- but as of this review date, not yet updated to SHADOWS OF SHERWOOD.

I plan to pick up multiple copies of this one. It will be a holiday gift for a couple of kids, but maybe even more highly valued by the several adults I know who are watching for the best in kids' books. No, I don't consider this YA (young adult), even though there's social chaos, political maneuvering, and such ... the issues are ethical and passionate but, at least in this first volume of the series, not heartbreaking, and there's no physical attraction to deal with between the characters. Safe to give it to that rapid-reader 9- or 10-year-old whom you appreciate; those over 13 may curl their lip at this ("too young a book!") but will enjoy sneaking into its pages anyway. Just don't tell them you noticed what they decided to read after all.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Suspense and Southern Warmth, SCRAPBOOK OF THE DEAD, by Mollie Cox Bryan

There's a special pleasure in traveling to a new place (or time) through a work of fiction -- think of all the British novels (and Sherlock Holmes stories) that have given readers a feel for London fogs and the dark menace of the Tower of London and the civilized veneer of tea parties. And of course, all the Europeans and Asians who've been convinced, on the basis of certain American films and books, that this is a land of gunfire and feasting, in roughly equal proportions.

Sometimes the traveling and the taste of a different culture are a bit more subtle, though. The Cumberland Creek mysteries from Mollie Cox Bryan propose small-town life rich with women's friendships. Women who have enough time to get together regularly on Saturday (!) evenings for scrapbook work parties -- that is, to hold "a crop." And on top of that, women who completely accept each other's diversity (from Christian to Jewish to Wiccan) because they value each other's support so fully.

It's a lovely world that this author has created, and her fifth mystery set in "Cumberland Creek," Virginia, SCRAPBOOK OF THE DEAD, provides a long tender visit with about-to-be-ex investigative journalist Annie, bakery owner DeeAnn, elderly Beatrice (and her new French husband), and others who keep each other going. It's October, and the group's saluting autumn in scrapbook images and colors, when the warm comfort of their group is interrupted by murder ... by two murders, in fact, of sisters who were immigrants working in their town. To their shock, they haven't even realized the area's famous pie restaurant takes advantage of new immigrants, paying well below the going wage through an international "agency." Equally shocking to Annie, DeeAnn, and Beatrice is realizing they didn't even notice the new row of low-end housing where these workers live.

Annie's journalism job keeps her motivated to dig into the murders, while her friends move into action out of compassion and a sort of embarrassment at how they've ignored the most unfortunate women in their community, including the first murdered woman, Marina. That murder has another connection to this group, which Annie reveals:
Annie just smiled and fingered through her stack of cardstock. "You know, I almost forgot about the scrapbook page."

"What?" DeeAnn said.

"Marina was holding a scrapbook page when they found her," Annie said.

The room silenced.

"Disturbing," DeeAnn finally said.
It's even more disturbing when the women realize that Marina's sister, also murdered, was also holding a scrapbook page at the time she was killed.

Cox weaves multiple investigations through the gentle probing by each of her main characters. Motive? Means? Opportunity? The fragments they uncover, like bits of a scrapbook page, won't make sense until the final faces are added, as the book reaches a crescendo during the week of Halloween.

This is a classic "cozy" mystery with plenty of family, friendship, and desserts involved, and gentle pressure toward solving the case. Read it for entertainment and the pleasure of page-turning without effort -- a mystery meant for fun and to honor the warmth of friendships in the author's own life. No need to have read the four books before this one, but some details will mean more (like Cookie's amnesia and Annie's family issues) if you have.

No recipes in this one, but an intriguing glossary of "terms for the modern scrapbooker" and some tips for the craft. From Kensington Books, where the art of the cozy series is being perfected.

Charlie Parker Thriller, A SONG OF SHADOWS by John Connolly

US cover
With the 14th in his series of Charlie Parker suspenseful thrillers, A SONG OF SHADOWS, John Connolly has another winner: a work of crime fiction so intense and so character-driven that the strands of paranormal occurrences woven into the plot make perfect sense and effectively ramp the tension higher.

And from me, that's saying a lot, because I prefer my paranormal (I re-read Harry Potter) and my crime fiction (most of the rest of my shelves) unblended.

Connolly's Charlie Parker draws darkness toward him. We've all known someone like that. But in Parker's case, the forces of evil, enflamed by a malicious pervert with a powerful position in organized crime, have actually been hunting Parker for years. He gets in their way. Often. So do his teammates, Louis and Angel, who make the local real estate agent in the small Maine town of Boreas very nervous. Still, they manage to rent an ideal house in which Parker can recuperate, if that's possible, from the attacks that came close to ending his life and career in The Wolf in Winter (also set in Maine). It's isolated and readily defended.

Just as Parker moves into this house, where he can make his own slow rehab system to force his broken body back into action, the nearest -- but also very isolated -- house down the road also gains a tenant. Two, actually: a mother and daughter, Amanda.

Parker's casual assurance to young Amanda that she can meet and play with Parker's own daughter soon brings another potent strand of influence into the plot. Parker actually has two daughters, one dead, the other very much alive and living nearly a day's drive away with her mom on the far side of Vermont. What Parker doesn't at first realize is, Amanda's making connections with both of those daughters. And there's something else about the girls that Parker is actually scared to look at directly.
He was certain that tonight, after all he had endured, he must surely die.

A cool hand was laid on his forehead, the skin so chill as to be spangled with frost. Through his tears he saw it gleaming in the moonlight, sparkling like the light of dead stars. A voice spoke

daddy

and he felt the coldness of her breath, and smelled the scent of a world beyond this one. ... He lay on the floor in a fever dream as his dead daughter comforted him.
Despite this aspect to the book and characters, A SONG OF SHADOWS is very much traditional crime fiction: As the American cover hints, and Connolly's chapter describing Boreas's founding and enduring "German-ness," one aspect of American crime has roots in covering up for Nazi sadists who've escaped begin caught since World War II. Parker starts to realize that his neighbors have some tie to a cover-up, and he needs to sort out which side they are actually on, a challenge made tougher by the resolute silence of Amanda's mom, and repeated attacks in the region.

I couldn't put it down. Part of the reason, obviously, is Connolly's powerful writing and finely tuned pace and suspense. The other is that the face of evil, and the linked hands of the good, as Connolly depicts them -- well, there's some truth in all that. And a really good book is one that makes it all a little clearer, and proves that the successes of the good are, well, ... worth their sacrifices.
UK cover

PS -- Connolly's website is a good resource and includes Chapter 1 of the book.