Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Gritty Alternative to Sherlock Holmes, in ARROWOOD by Mick Finlay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Advance Mention of July 4 Release, NO SURRENDER, Patrick Bisher with Jon Land

I'm a fan of Jon Land's quirky crime series featuring Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong. In a startling divergence from his two mystery series, Land's newest book -- on which he is the secondary author -- is nonfiction, an inspirational memoir from Navy SEAL warrior Patrick Bisher.

The full title of the book is NO SURRENDER: FAITH, FAMILY, AND FINDING YOUR WAY. Bisher, who suffered a major bone failure as a 9-year-old child that could have confined him to a wheelchair or crutches for life, instead chose to push past enormous physical pain for years, in an effort to keep up with how he saw his brothers -- one living, one deceased -- and a refusal to give up.

Although his story is framed alongside his changing faith in God, Bisher mostly narrates his choices as reflecting grit, stubbornness, and a willingness to suffer pain as needed to reach his goals. It's not my kind of book in general, but between Bisher's compelling story and the presumed writing support he had from Jon Land, I found the memoir worth reading, looking always for how this astonishing warrior-in-the-making would cope with his next threatened defeat.

If you're looking for a Fourth of July gift to inspire and encourage someone facing a similar set of choices -- including youngsters considering a military career -- consider making this book your patriotic and touching gift to someone this summer. The release date is July 4, from Post Hill Press (already available for pre-ordering online or at your local independent bookstore).

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

Detroit-Area Crime Reporter Julia Gooden in DUPLICITY by Jane Haseldine

DUPLICITY is the second of the Julia Gooden crime novels -- but the first to come my way. Issued as a hardcover by Kensington, it moves author Jane Haseldine onto the "must collect" list. Not only is this gritty and high-tension mystery set in grim and corruptible Detroit, once the nation's "Motor City"; it takes the classic situation of investigative journalist versus crooked justice, and salts it with mob violence and vicious politics.

For Julia Gooden, the job comes first. That makes her a challenging character, when you consider she's also a mom to two small boys -- in fact, almost a single mom, since she's only starting to consider letting her estranged husband back into the family's life.

Her career also pits her directly against her husband David at this moment, as he is the prosecutor taking a mob figure to trial, determined to keep witnesses and testimony secret for as long as possible, to secure the safety of those on the stand. When a rival newspaper picks up details that Julia might have exposed if only she didn't have to be so careful of her husband's position, her own job prospects take a hard blow. But that's nothing compared to the violence and risk ahead, as her efforts to keep her family safe take her behind the crime scenes, into serious conflicts of interest.

Adding yet another layer of suspense and darkness to Julia's life is her past: not just the years when her marriage "worked" but also the childhood crushed by the kidnapping of her brother, who still hasn't been found -- one reason, in fact, that she's kept her "maiden" name despite marrying.

All this comes to a head in a hospital room, as Julia wonders whether David can even hear her trying to encourage him to recover from an act of terror -- and steps into deep trouble through a routine gesture:
She notices a cardboard box containing David's belongings on a stand next to the bed, including his clothing he had carefully selected for big day one of the trial. Julia inspects the items in the box: David's cell phone, wallet, blue suit coat and dress pants, white button-down shirt with the gold stripes she picked for him just hours earlier. ... Julia tucks the box under her arm as Dr. Whitcomb pokes his head inside the door.

"Ms. Gooden, I'm afraid it's time to leave."

Julia leans in close to David and whispers in his ear, "I love you. Fight with all you've got."
What Julia will later find on that significant cell phone shifts the balance in this intense thriller, and will also affect her interactions with a local police detective. Layer after layer, she's got to figure out who around her is trustworthy -- and whose duplicity is going to wound her yet again.

And, oh yes, somehow save her job, if possible.

This is a fast-moving and suspenseful tale, with enjoyable complications and twists throughout. Julia Gooden won't be my favorite character of the month -- I didn't like some of her choices, to the point where I wouldn't actually want her as a friend. But that's OK: I still want to follow her investigations, here and in future books of the series.

I also get the strong impression that Haseldine -- a former crime reporter herself -- is positioned to get steadily stronger in this genre. Worth going along for the ride!

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

New Release, THE ULTIMATUM, Thriller from Karen Robards

There's a time for hot suspense, and sometimes there's a place for romance -- but in THE ULTIMATUM,  the new and exhilarating thriller from Karen Robards, it's suspense and danger that take the hot seat. And that's terrific news, because Bianca St. Ives -- daughter of an outrageous international con man who's taught her the ultimate in survival skills and problem solving -- needs all her wits about her to carry out her own high-stakes tasks.

If you've ever wondered where the equivalent of Jack Reacher was for women, the answer is, in this page-turning global crime novel. Bianca's irresistible, a determined young women making fools out of the unprincipled gangsters she's up against. The first hundred pages of THE ULTIMATUM pits her against a misogynous prince of Bahrain, and she's leading a crew of top-notch thieves to reclaim something the prince shouldn't have. But it looks like the whole night's been a setup, to get to her and her team -- or, most dangerously of all, to her father.

So when the heist goes catastrophic, and she and her least likely associate watch a death trap in operation, Bianca shakes off the horror that's frozen her in place:
"We have to go," she said, and stood up. It took every ounce of strength and determination she possessed. Fire trucks raced up the street, screaming to a stop beside the flaming truck. Firefighters jumped down, ran to connect their hoses to hydrants along the plaza. ...

Doc rose too. "But we can't just --"

"Yes, we can. We have to go," she repeated more strongly and grabbed his arm. "We can't help them. We can stay here and die with them, or we can save ourselves."
Strong, fierce, determined -- these are the key words for Bianca St. Ives. She's also hungry for family and loyal friends, and when she finds them under threat, her own actions have one route only: Save them, no matter the challenge.

Whether she's negotiating terms on a boat at sea or struggling for footing on a snow-covered mountain, her extreme fitness skills and her desire to follow the quest her dad instilled in her drive her into high action and hair-raising hunts -- where she is sometimes the hunter but just as often, the prey.

Robards salts the adventure with a deft touch of sexual tension, since one of Bianca's opponents has an odd knack of taking her breath away. But it doesn't stop Bianca, or deter her. Not at all.

I kicked myself as I reached the final chapter, having only just realized what the book's title suggested; some readers will figure that part out much sooner than I did. More importantly, I hated to turn the final pages. Good thing this is the start of a series, even if the name "The Guardian Series" sound more like sci fi than international thriller. Hmm. When you've devoured your copy (turn off all distractions), let me know what you think. No spoilers, though!

Robards, by the way, is the author of more than 50 novels -- if, like me, you haven't sampled her work before, that may be because a her early work was romantic suspense, then contemporary suspense. I'm hoping she'll stay with intense thriller as her long-time genre, now that she's broken into it so boldly and marvelously. Quick comparisons: Less emotionally torn than Taylor Stevens's Monroe, not as wounded at Carol O'Connell's Kathy, but a bit more complex (and hence engaging) than Jack Reacher. Grab a copy.

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

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Summer Mystery Delight, DEATH ON NANTUCKET, Francine Mathews

Summer reading season is fully here, and with it, a crop of new mysteries to enjoy. I'm especially glad that DEATH ON NANTUCKET came my way. This fifth in the Merry Folger Mystery series from Francine Mathews is a smoothly written, tightly plotted detective novel based on one of the classic mystery tropes: the death of a wealthy head of the family, with a circle of possible beneficiaries in the house.

Investigating for the Nantucket police force is Detective Meredith Folger, who needs to have her A game lined up: Not only is Spencer Murphy a famous and powerful former war correspondent with a fortune amassed from his books -- but the death of his (unknown to many) adopted daughter as the July 4th weekend opens puts pressure on Merry to quickly get the facts, make a determination, charge someone or not, and have it all wrapped up politely before the weekend ends. At least, that's what her highly critical boss expects from her.

Merry's own past -- lightly and deftly sketched in by Mathews -- includes having to fight for her own upcoming wedding ceremony to be on her terms, not those of her powerful mother-in-law to be. The challenges of both work and home help her to tune in quickly to the Murphy family undercurrents. Loyalties cut both ways, Spencer Murphy is losing his own truths to dementia, and the family's youngest member on scene, young college grad Laney Murphy, seems the only person willing to be fully honest as Merry sorts through motive, means, and abundant opportunity.

This is a great traditional mystery, one of the most satisfying I've read this season. I recommend it highly, and will scramble to line up the earlier titles for my own summer reading pleasure: Death in the Off-Season, Death in Rough Water, Death in a Mood Indigo, Death in a Cold Hard Light.

Although the series is new to me, I'm already a fan of what Francine Mathews writes under her other nom de plume, Stephanie Barron. The author lives in Denver, CO, but clearly knows Nantucket well -- and is a former CIA intelligence analyst.

Newly released today, from Soho Crime. And I have a list of people for whom to buy copies already!

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


Cara Black/Aimée Leduc Paris Mystery 17, MURDER IN SAINT-GERMAIN

Good news for Cara Black mystery fans -- number 17 in the very entertaining Aimée Leduc series is released today. And MURDER IN SAINT-GERMAIN takes the Parisian detective in a fresh new direction: sorting out an espionage-related set of crimes that cross her path.

That's not simple for the new and mostly single mom who runs a cybersecurity firm, where ideally she could stay at a desk like her detection partners, checking videotape and files. But even that turns active in this mystery, with a client demanding in-person service that sends Leduc scrambling for changes of couture -- and there's nothing like scrambling across rooftops encrusted with pigeon waste, to make a gal pull off her designer footwear and tackle the task barefoot after all.

Aimée Leduc is also scrambling for child care, as her darling baby, newly mobile, needs careful care, but the usual caregivers aren't available. When Melac, the baby's hunky but disloyal dad, steps up to cover the gap, a mysterious woman that Melac introduces as his mother (who knew?!) also enters.

Even while sorting out Bosnians, Serbians, and war criminals, Leduc's own confused past keeps claiming her attention. Is her godfather, Morbier, dying in a hospital as a result of her own actions? Has she been unfair? Do the Paris police care whether she was right or wrong, or will they simply all make her life harder as punishment for her injuring their hero, Morbier?

This one's a lively page turner, and even comes with a map to help put the detection and suspense into geographical perspective. Series fans will find it a "must"; if you're new to the series, it still reads well, but you may want to skip back a couple of titles to get background on the sometimes chaotic issues and relationships! Otherwise the sometimes choppy chapters can be a bit distracting.

As I write this, Paris is in the breaking news for an attack on a police officer at the cathedral of Notre Dame; better to have the crimes in the fiction instead. Add this one to the summer reading stack for light fun.

Checklist of titles, newest last, thanks to the Cara Black website:

Murder in the Marais (1999)
Murder in Belleville (2000)
Murder in the Sentier (2003)
Murder in the Bastille (2004) Murder in Clichy (2005)
Murder in Montmartre (2006) Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis (2007) Murder in the Rue de Paradis (2008) Murder in the Latin Quarter (2009) Murder in the Palais Royale (2010) Murder in Passy (2011)

Murder at the Lanterne Rouge (2012) Murder Below Montparnasse (2013) Murder In Pigalle (2014)
Murder on the Champ de Mars (2015) Murder on the Quai (2016)

Murder in Saint-Germain (2017)
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Thursday, June 01, 2017

When Computer Crashes Are Criminal -- BLACKOUT from Marc Elsberg

Part of the fun of global culture is catching up with a book that's already been a bestseller "someplace else." Marc Elsberg's thriller BLACKOUT, released in hardcover in the US today, took Europe by storm in 2012. Fun to have this all-too-believable page-turner come across the ocean!

Elsberg lives in Vienna, Austria, so BLACKOUT is a translated crime novel -- but Marshall Yarbrough's skills make the change of language invisible. The book's premise is that the interlinked power grids across Europe could be triggered to fail, through relatively small and workable changes in the software that runs the generating stations, from hydro to nuclear. Spinning the thriller into deeper intrigue is the notion that today's computer hackers could make those changes. And then, bang, we're into food shortages, hospital issues, transport failure, lack of fuel, and soon, political unrest.

It's hard to avoid spoilers on this one. So I'll just add that the book's written in very short segments, alternating points of view every couple of pages, or sooner (if that makes you crazy, don't open this one). The characters are clever but not deep; it's the plot and the relentless action that make this a powerful and yes, anxiety-arousing (!) read. It's not going to bind you to the protagonist the way a Lee Child crime novel will, but it moves as quickly (or more so), and I do believe the author's claim that it provoked a lot of security changes in the power industries!

Even though I'm keeping this short, I enjoyed every minute of BLACKOUT and am going to get multiple copies, for all the friends and family members who won't be able to put it down. Hope you can grab a copy ASAP. Move it to the top of the summer stack -- so you'll be prepare!

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

Brief Mention, Medieval Mystery by Oliver Pötzsch, THE PLAY OF DEATH

Three reasons to read number six in Oliver Pötzsch's "Hangman's Daughter" series, THE PLAY OF DEATH:
1. You collect the reading experience of mysteries set in Bavaria.
2. You like fiction set in the 1600s.
3. You're planning to see the Bread & Puppet Theater in action in Vermont (or treasure having done so in the past, especially in the 1970s and 1980s).
At the heart of this somewhat awkwardly translated mystery (reminds me of the translation of P.J. Brackston's books, also set in Bavaria) is the annual passion play in Oberammergau -- which in many ways is a precursor to the grand spectacles that Bread & Puppet created. The second strand is what life is like in a caste-conscious society when you're part of a hangman's family.

And the third, of course, is a murder and finding the dangerous criminal responsible.

I'm not going to cover this one in depth -- seems to me if you have one of those reasons, you'll pick up the book, and otherwise, skip it -- but here's the formal description from the Munich-born author's website:
It is 1670 and Simon Fronwieser is in the town of Oberammergau to bring his seven-year-old son to boarding school. As he bids his boy a tearful farewell, news comes of a shocking murder: the man who was to play the part of Christ in the town’s Passion play has been found dead, nailed to the set’s cross. As there is no doctor in town, Simon is brought in to examine the body. The opportunities to spend more time with his son and to investigate the murder quickly convince him to stay.

Soon he is joined by his father-in-law, Jakob Kuisl, the Schongau hangman, and the two begin piecing together the puzzle of the actor’s death. Was he murdered by a jealous rival? Are the recently arrived and unpopular immigrant workers somehow involved? Or is it a punishment from God for the villagers’ arrogance in trying to schedule the play four years earlier than prescribed by ancient custom? Once again it looks like it is up to the Kuisls to unravel the mystery and bring a town’s dark secrets to light.
Brought to the US by Mariner, a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt press. (A quick note: Yes, I realize that strictly speaking the 1600s are beyond the medieval period. But trust me, not in this landscape.)

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

More Summer Reading, British "Traditional" Mystery with Archaeology, THE CHALK PIT, Elly Griffiths

British author Elly Griffiths writes two distinctive mystery series, one set "today" in and around Norwich, England, rich with archaeology and very British themes, and the other involving stage magic and illusion plus murder, circa 1950. I'm a fan of both.

Just released this week in the US is the newest in her Ruth Galloway mystery series, featuring a forensic archaeologist who's also a single parent in a very complicated network of university politics, local police, and the remnants of England's past -- which in Ruth's case includes a significant friendship with a modern-day Druid. No fancy paranormal side effects in here, unless you count the occasional strong intuition that Ruth and her friends may experience. Instead, THE CHALK PIT provides the perfect summer read: a strong traditional mystery with powerful motives (money and power!), and heart-stirring secondary plotting among the homeless in Norwich.

This time Ruth's investigating some human bones that turned up in an old tunnel, part of an excavation for a future restaurant-and-event locale, where the money at stake pushed the agenda. Hurry up and declare the bones insignificant remains of some medieval resident (definitely not royal) and get them out of the way. Ruth's willing ... but, as she settles to discussing them with DCI Nelson, head of the Norwich police team and a mostly former flame of Ruth's, her doubts take shape:
"Anyway, it's likely that the bones are medieval or even older. There's no flesh on them and they look very clean. It's just ..."

"What is it, Ruth? I know there's something you're not telling me."

"It might be nothing. But one of the long bones was broken in the middle and there were cut marks on it. And the bones were so clean, almost shiny. It reminded me of something that I've read about. Pot polish."

"Pot polish? Sounds like something my granny would do."

"I doubt it. It's when bones are boiled soon after death. The polish comes from the contact with a roughly made cooking vessel."

"Jesus wept." Nelson chokes on his last crumb of cake. "Are you saying these bones were in a cooking pot?"
While Ruth keeps that aspect as quiet as possible, she's getting crowded by fellow academics who want to push into the underground labyrinth with her, and some have motives that worry her. Meanwhile, Nelson's team, especially DS Judy Johnson, has another reason for interest in those old tunnels that were once part of the region's chalk-mining industry: Could homeless people in the area become crime victims of someone living "underground" and kidnapping them, or worse?

Griffiths keeps the twists spinning, enlivened by Ruth Galloway's confused "love life" that tugs her in as many directions as her work does. Lively storytelling, quick surprises, and a lot at stake make the book a very good vacation from ordinary daily life -- and from the lawnmower and garden!

This is the ninth in the series, and it lacks the tang of some of the earlier titles when Ruth's Druid friend Cathbad saw more action. There's no need to read the others first -- Griffiths is a pro in terms of setting the scene in a sequel by now -- but for the best enjoyment, I'd recommend splurging for the summer reading pile and picking up the earlier titles in softcover (The Crossing Places, The Janus Stone, The House at Sea's End, A Room Full of Bones, A Dying Fall, The Outcast Dead, The Ghost Fields, The Woman in Blue). FYI, the earlier titles veer a bit more toward the dark and dangerous side than THE CHALK PIT does. (It's all about taste, isn't it?)

Great that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has brought this series across the Atlantic.

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

Summer Reading Starts Today: Memorial Day 2017, with CALLED TO JUSTICE, Edith Maxwell

The parade. The picnic. In New England, the visit to the cemetery to trim around the family plot and set some flowers or flowering plants by the resting places of family members -- and perhaps a flag or two, at the same time.

Or do you spend your Memorial Day struggling to catch up with the suddenly green grass, the garden plots, the gas grill that needs assembling before supper?

Good news: In addition to all of that, Memorial Day is the start of the summer reading season. And I have some great candidates for the stack.

CALLED TO JUSTICE is the second in Edith Maxwell's Quaker Midwife mystery series. So far, the books take place in Amesbury, Massachusetts, about 20 years after the Civil War. The town's status as a carriage center involves multiple mills making all the parts -- wood, leather, and more -- for horse-drawn carriages of varying levels of elegance. Thriving, prospering, the town therefore holds a significant number of people ... and various houses of worship, including a Friends (Quaker) Meetinghouse attended by the great Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier. To Rose Carroll, a skilled but definitely blue-collar midwife in the town (and also a Quaker, or "Friend"), Whittier is a mentor for ethical decisions. And her calling, to assist women in the most dangerous (and joyous!) passage most of them will endure, takes her often to visit this semi-reclusive leader in her neighborhood.

As the book opens, Rose's feet ache from standing for the Independence Day speeches at the town center, including a volunteer reading aloud one of Whittier's poems written for a nearby statue of a signed of the Declaration of Independence, and saying:
And thou, O Land he loved, rejoice
That in the countless years to come,
Whenever Freedom needs a voice,
These sculptured lips shall not be dumb!
Rose herself takes on the responsibility to speak for freedom and justice a few hours later, when attending Fourth of July fireworks with her beau, a doctor -- they are called to try to save a gunshot victim, a 17-year-old girl, and then to speak up for one of the area's few African American residents, a former slave now a business owner, who is quickly accused of having something to do with the shooting.

The girl can't be saved -- and Rose is further burdened with the knowledge that this teenage mill worker was pregnant, perhaps as a result of rape. Is the girl's condition connected with her death? Was the gunshot an accident, or was it murder?

Maxwell's lively mystery explores Rose's sense of what's right and just in her community and her spiritual home. Readers who read the first book (Delivering the Truth) will enjoy discovering that Rose's romantic life blossoms amid the investigation and attending childbirths, whether simple or risky. But Maxwell provides plenty of grounding to hold those who missed the first book (you may want to pick it up later). She also smoothly introduces Quaker customs, from the mostly silent meetings, to how decisions are made in the group, to private decision making and prayer -- as well as how a marriage takes place, something that may come to fruition later in the series!

Most importantly for mystery readers, the clues, twists, red herrings, and solutions in this historical crime novel are neatly assembled and intriguing. And, in the spirit of a season of patriotism that thrives during Memorial Day and again at Independence Day, midwife Rose Carroll takes her stand here for diverse types of justice: racial, gendered, and the human rights of the poor and less powerful.

A good read, and a delightful reward for a summer interlude, whether on a rainy afternoon or a sunny beach. Let me know your guesses for where Maxwell will take this series (from Midnight Ink) in the future -- I can hardly wait to discover more!

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

British Mystery to Grab Right Away, ALL OF A WINTER'S NIGHT, Phil Rickman

If you already know the Merrily Watkins mysteries and enjoy them, don't hesitate -- go out and get a copy of ALL OF A WINTER'S NIGHT right away. And clear your schedule for page-turning reading from Wales-connected author Phil Rickman.

If, like me, you're new to this British series, let me fill you in. Merrily Watkins is the vicar of a community church in a mostly rural section of England, Hereford, on the border of Wales. She's also what in the States we would call an "exorcist" -- but in a very quiet way, with a group of others religious leaders who've found themselves called to relieve the troubles of those who experience paranormal events. They call their field of effort "deliverance" and it has a lot to do with letting people get things of their chests, and then following up with prayer and related church services.

But Merrily's position is under attack from the new bishop and it's not clear how far he'll go to restrict her out-of-pulpit activities. She's also concerned about her daughter Jane, taking a gap year before university and somehow unmoored from expectations.

Both Jane and Merrily find support from a neighboring musician -- who in turn collaborates with local Detective Inspector Frannie Bliss as a shooting and a vehicular death turn out to reveal the powerful strands of organized crime in the region, with international ties and a lot of money.

When the two plot lines cross, the action and risks multiply exponentially. So do the ties to a much earlier form of spirituality in the region, expressed in part through the concept and character of the ancient "Green Man," but also in the rituals of a very private, very disturbing group of folk dancers recreating "Border morris" dances with strange undertones.

I saw parallels in many of the characters to the landowners, farmers, and ambitious developers of my own northern Vermont region. And if we don't yet have a Merrily Watkins among us, I'm willing to believe there's an opening for her American counterpart (in fact, John Connolly's Maine paranormal series evokes the same sense of timeless power and faith).

Don't let the "haunting" aspect of ALL OF A WINTER'S NIGHT keep you away from this crime novel -- because it is in the long run all about human greed and passion, and following the benefits of the crime. But getting to the solution takes a long, lovely time, nearly 500 pages in which each chapter provides a powerful impulse forward, and the Big Questions get intelligent and passionate attention.

Here's the author's own take on what Merrily is up to:
It's a real job; there's at least one in every diocese in the UK. They work with psychiatrists, social workers ... and also the police. Inevitably, in this series, this is the aspect of the job that predominates.

And their own beliefs are often tested. There are few certainties. The borderline between psychology and the unexplained is often laid out in barbed wire.
A keeper. And I'm going to have to find the preceding 13 Merrily Watkins mysteries, ASAP. 

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

Brief Mention, CRUEL IS THE NIGHT, Karo Hämäläinen

Did you enjoy the plot, characters, twists, and finale of Gone Girl? If so, race to your favorite book-buying route and get a copy of the CRUEL IS THE NIGHT. It's translated from the Finnish, and struck me as closer to Chicago crime than to the usual form of Scandinavian noir that I've read lately ... but the moment I compared it in to Gillian Flynn's runaway success, I knew why this new book from Soho Crime seemed hauntingly familiar in a sort of parallel-universe way. Here's the publisher's synopsis:
Prizewinning Finnish author Karo Hämäläinen’s English-language debut is a literary homage to Agatha Christie and a black comedy locked-room mystery about murder, mayhem, and morality in our cynical modern world.
Well, yes, now that you mention it, "black comedy" and "cynical modern world" effectively tag CRUEL IS THE NIGHT as noir. It's also highly entertaining, as the author's multiple points of view reveal the frictions, resentments, and "frissons" of attraction and repulsion among four people -- two couples reconnecting after years of estrangement, ostensibly to celebrate one couple's striking success.

Pick this one up for the challenge of a puzzle mystery. It's quite an effort to work out the ending before the author takes you there! Hats off to translator Owen Witesman, who propels plenty of page-turning dialogue and action onto the English-language pages.

From Soho Crime, where international crime fiction thrives.

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

Henry Chang's "Chinatown Trilogy" Concludes with Book 5, LUCKY

International mysteries pull me into new places, with intriguing histories and cultures, illuminated through the characters and their choices. I grew up reading "British" mysteries -- then was astonished when the French, German, and Spanish ones came my way. What a delight!

And then Soho Crime -- an imprint of Soho Press -- came into my bookshelves, and I delved into the lives and perils of characters in Scandianvia, Africa, Asia ...

But one of Soho Crime's intriguing "international crime" series turns out to be set almost entirely in New York City, in and around Chinatown, through the eyes of police detective Jack Yu. Because of the detailed cityscapes that author Henry Chang provides for Yu's investigations, I've come to see those red-bannered shops and streets full of Asian voices entirely differently -- perhaps most especially as far more diverse than just a crowd from one modern nation. Mandarin and Cantonese languages, Toishanese dialect, centuries-long family bonds and loyalties and conflicts, traditions and obligations that require fresh understanding and sometimes are far beyond everyday American experience -- all this is enfolded in Chang's mystery series.

With the publication of LUCKY this spring, the Jack Yu series appears to be wrapping up (although I never assume a detective's pages are done for good ...). It's been a series well worth anticipating, and in this fifth book (two more than the envisioned "Chinatown Trilogy" of the early ones), some important threads from the earlier books are pulled tight. The most important is that of Jack Yu's childhood friend and then criminal connection, "Lucky" Louie, who's been lying in a hospital apparently comatose, without a chance of recovery, through much of the series.

LUCKY opens with a few chapters from Jack's point of view, as he visits his father's grave in a regional cemetery, to observe the customs of Ch'ing Ming, a time of year when it's important to feed the connection to deceased family members. Of course that puts Jack in a reflective mood, but he doesn't have long to enjoy it, as his schedule pulls him into a mandated psych appointment, then a quick undercover visit to his sweetheart (big reasons why it can't be public). Meanwhile, surprising changes are happening in Lucky Louie's hospital room.

This crime novel swiftly transforms into a heist thriller, as a crime spree unfolds that involves Jack Yu on levels he'll never be able to admit to his superiors. Here's the author commenting on the tight, intense pace of LUCKY in an interview at the Mystery People blog:
"The tightness of the pace was an adjustment to the storytelling style. Lucky‘s written more like a thriller than a mystery, where you can’t wait to see what Lucky does next. Unlike Jack’s usual investigative mysteries, which can meander culturally as the clues arise, Lucky is an escalating conflict-driven crime world drive-by. Lucky’s actions drive the narrative."
It's easy to slip into spoilers, so I won't say more -- except that this is a really good read, worth adding to either the summer reading stack or this weekend's diversions. No problem stepping into this fifth and final book of the series without reading the other four, but it's definitely a richer work if you've followed Jack Yu's career and struggles with his mixed identities.

Wonder what Henry Chang is writing next? Because I'm sure he is. It's been too much fun! By the way, his author webpage is pretty much bare bones and often out of date -- for insight into Chang and his books and the causes he's championing, "Friend" him on Facebook. Worth the effort!

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

Diversion: Poetry to Stretch the Mind, with a Smile ... Adrienne Raphel, WHAT WAS IT FOR

One of the delights of living in a rural place for a long, long time is seeing people make themselves into their dreams. When Adrienne Raphel left St. Johnsbury, Vermont, for all kinds of education in the big, mostly urban world out there, I wondered which of her dreams she would pick for the long haul. "We" all knew she'd be writing fine material -- but in what genre?

The question's now happily answered, as Raphel's first published book is a collection of poems, WHAT WAS IT FOR, via Rescue Press and the Black Box Poetry Prize.

The cover art, suggestive of an old-fashioned book of natural science, speaks to the sense in her poems that life-as-we-know-it has long-lasting themes and puzzles. But in her voice, these take fresh new form. I particularly enjoyed a surprising take on "vacationing" in the poem "Agar Agar," where the second stanza offers, "The sky is pink gelatin / Welcome to Vacation Island / the doorbell rings and I go / Close and leave my body behind." By the end of the poem, the hot sunshine's effect on that gelatin -- oh yes, I recall gelled "agar agar" in a Petri dish, ready to be inoculated with germplasm of life -- has transformed it:
I've never been so translucent never so runny
The white-hot sand makes my feet pinker
What part of me will I tattoo
I can go so far and farther
Many of the poems hint at a story line, then back away from it, leaving the conclusion and its emotional freight wide open. Questions initiate inquiry, like "But What Will We Do," which begins by asking"But what will we do when the rain doesn't come" -- a poem that entwines the I, we, and you of the moment into longer term questions.

It's a joy to have a copy of the book (a big thank-you to Raphel and her parents for the gift!) because I can return to it day after day and discover that other surprise of strong poems -- that in each day there's a different poem that seems to speak most directly. Today I listen particularly to the hints in "On Monday the Moon Sank Into the Sea," which includes "quixotic geese" and "slack-jaw old clams" as well as a "phantom leg left at a ball." It's playtime on Raphel's pages, and I'm happy to be invited.

Available from Rescue Press online, and also from the usual online sources -- and of course by order at independent booksellers. Tell them to get it into their shelf list, in case you hunger to go pick up another copy for a good friend.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Pre-World War I Mystery, Spunky Heroine: MURDER BETWEEN THE LINES, Radha Vatsal

New this month is the second in Radha Vatsal's Kitty Weeks mystery series, MURDER BETWEEN THE LINES, a lively traditional mystery with an embraceable sleuth and much insight into U.S. politics just before World War I.

Kitty Weeks is a "ladies' page" reporter in Manhattan and the year 1915 is coming rapidly to a close. America hasn't yet entered the war in Europe, although mistrust for Germans runs rampant. Kitty's own newspaper, the New York Sentinel, has a German employee working in the morgue -- the research room where earlier issues of the paper are kept -- and Kitty's friendly with Mr. Musser, thanks to her European education and language skills. And that's a good thing, because even as the book opens, she's in over her head and it's going to take some deep information to put things into perspective.

Most endearing about Kitty is her desire to become a "real" reporter like the men who cover politics and other news stories, but in her time, that's not looking likely. Still, her supervisor, Miss Busby, is attempting to at least keep up with the times, by allowing Kitty to cover a drama staged by some suffragettes, and to examine the women's side of a visit by President Wilson to the city.

What Miss Busby doesn't realize is that Kitty is using even these daring adventures as cover for trying to solve the death of a schoolgirl who may have been inventing better batteries for wartime submarines. But that, of course, is totally not her beat!

The pre-World War I years are deftly handled in Ratsal's lively series, viewed by Kitty -- an upper class young lady causing her father some potential embarrassment by daring to take even a half-time job -- in the manner of a city woman with a busy social life. That differentiates the series strongly from police procedurals and very dark crime series that are now exploring World War I (say, works by Charles Todd or David Downing). MURDER BETWEEN THE LINES is a quick and relaxing read, and there's just a dash of flirtation inserted, no distraction into the perils of romance.

Most of all, it's intriguing to follow Kitty's thinking as she questions the words of even her own boss, who predicts that the Kaiser may bring Germany's rule to America:
"Do you really believe that, Miss Busby?" Kitty had heard reports that prominent citizens -- even Mr. Edison -- were calling for preparedness out of fear that the Germans might launch amphibious attacks on America's unprotected eastern seaboard. Mr. Weeks [Kitty's politically mysterious father] has said that such a scenario seemed highly unlikely; Germany had its hands full battling its immediate foes. It could hardly spare men and resources to wage war in New Jersey.
But as 1916 opens, unlike the young women in much of her circle, Kitty's scenting war's dreadful aroma in the winds of change. It will affect how she pursues the probable murderer of that clever schoolgirl -- and why.

No need to read the preceding book, A Front Page Affair, before this one -- but it will be fun to start filling a shelf with Vatsal's mysteries, for  enjoyable reading on rainy summer afternoons ahead. Both titles are paperback originals from Sourcebooks.

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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

All About the Plot -- New Thriller from Jassy Mackenzie, BAD SEEDS

South Africa's recent past, like Ireland's, sets it up as an ideal setting for intense conflict and heightened suspense. Jassy Mackenzie grabs it all and packs an impressively twisted plot with massive danger in her BAD SEEDS, her fifth thriller set in her homeland. I'm hooked on her Jade de Jong series, I confess. Jade is a private investigator with connections to the underworld of crime that she tries to ignore -- but when risks keep mounting, it's tempting to call on those old friends for help, right?

As Jade steps into what ought to be an ordinary investigation of a killing at a cheap motel, she finds herself drawn to a man she's supposed to be following and reporting on -- she's been hired by Ryan Gillespie, who works at a nuclear research station where there's been a sabotage attempt, with more to follow. In classic South African layering, Jade soon realizes there are at least two views of the research station: those of the powerful men who manipulate it, and those of the workers, some of whom are poisoned by their labors. Sbusiso and his cousin Shadrack are among the victims of the business, and Shadrack is dying -- but clinging to life through the virtue of a traditional remedy, a plant whose seeds he values highly.

So it is that we have both bad seeds -- those of crime and power -- and good ones. As Jade struggles to sort out which of the people in the case belong with which side, she's also grieving for a personal loss, that of her married boyfriend who had seemed about to bind himself to Jade instead:
One mistake on David's part was all it had taken.

He'd been planning to leave his wife, Naisha, but hadn't stopped sleeping with her. Now she was pregnant, and Jade was one of the few people who knew that the baby probably wasn't David's. ... Worst of all, despite the promises she'd made herself, she couldn't tell him.

Because -- and this hurt her the most -- he would be happier if he never knew.
Jade's interior struggles can't distract her from pursuing the tangled case in front of her, though. Who really benefits from sabotage when nuclear materials are involved? Who faces the worst risks?

I enjoyed every page of this tangled and twisting plot. No need to read the earlier books, although you may want to catch up -- this one stands well on its own. (This is Mackenzie's fifth, via Soho Crime; I especially liked The Fallen.) Good to explore South African life through Mackenzie's stories and insight, one of the big pluses of international crime fiction.

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

Japanese Noir, Painted in Precise Detail, from Fuminori Nakamura

The newest "Japanese noir" crime novel to arrive in the US from Fuminori Nakamura, THE BOY IN THE EARTH, begins as a slow, precise meditation by the protagonist (an unnamed Tokyo taxi driver who narrates all of the book), as he releases himself into being beaten and perhaps killed by a gang of motorcycle riders whose antagonism he has deliberately sought. Sentence by sentence, we sink with him into a crystalline awareness of the situation:
If they kept kicking me, if they beat me to a pulp, I might vanish into nothing, I might be absorbed by the earth, deep underground. It was terrifying. I felt robbed of my strength, and my heart raced painfully, although the twitching that ran up and down my spine was not unpleasant. Little by little, this fearful trembling was transforming into something else entirely, like a feeling of anticipation. Despite my terror, there was the definite sensation that I was patiently standing by. I experienced a moment of skepticism, but then it no longer mattered.
These precise details of sensation and taste-tested emotion make up an intricate portrait in motion, perhaps a dance -- each movement wrapped in hesitation and conflicted emotion and thought.

Our narrator, we soon realize, is an orphan -- or at least grew up in an orphanage, but also had devastating experiences in foster care. As if we were inside the core of a sociopath, a character on "Criminal Minds," an unfathomable criminal from yesterday's newspaper, we share the shiver of both disgust and realization.

So it is that this very short novel -- 147 pages as translated by Allison Markin Powell and published by Soho Crime -- blossoms in parallel to one of Nakamura's earlier meditations on crime, The Gun. Nakamura presents the small sharp fragments of injury that lead to a mind or soul ready to perform extreme acts. What THE BOY IN THE EARTH offers that differentiates it, though, is the delicate and repeated experience of holding back from action -- what the 12-stepper recognizes perhaps as "looking through the glass" to experience a moment of the future before taking a step in the present.

I found myself caught up in the dance of language and the intimate actions of the book. Dark, yes, and twisted, and deeply sad -- but it's also a book I'd recommend to adventurous readers who appreciate art and insight. There's nothing ordinary about it at all. And that, in the long run, becomes a remarkable experience in crime fiction.

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

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Scottish Noir from T. Frank Muir, THE MEATING ROOM

I've enjoyed the very dark and well crafted St Andrews, Scotland, mysteries of T. Frank Muir; two of them came my way via Soho Crime (Hand for a Hand; Tooth for a Tooth). I've no idea why the latest to cross the Atlantic, THE MEATING ROOM, came out from Academy Chicago (Chicago Review Press) this month, but I grabbed the book and dove right in, checking out the investigation led by DCI Andy Gilchrist.

And it's a doozy. A wealthy property developer, Thomas Magner, loses his business partner to apparent suicide, at the same time that the partner's family is murdered. The connection looks obvious -- the suicide is remorse driven, right? But Gilchrist's partner DS Jessie Janes raises some initial doubts, and soon Gilchrist has his own. Still, it's hard to investigate Magner because any added attention to him looks like bias: He's already been charged with multiple sexual assaults. When the women who'd accused Magner begin either recanting or dying, Gilchrist and Janes race the clock to find both evidence and witnesses they can count on.
Back in the Office, Gilchrist's mobile rang -- a number he did not recognize.

He made the connection.

"DI Smith here, sir. Sorry to trouble you again, but I thought you should know that they're dropping like flies."

Gilchrist understood immediately. "Who is it this time?"

"Abbott, Warren, and Williamson. All by phone again."

"Reasons?"

"More or less the same. Jenna Abbott said she didn't want to go to court or even give her testimony. ... Change of heart."
Alert readers will know, early on, that the unfolding crimes are likely to increase in graphic gruesomeness. (The title also suggests this.) So, reader beware ... it's going to be tough. But Muir's deft exploration of how his investigators will react to the increasing pressure on them (including in Andy Gilchrist's private life) ramps the suspense up swiftly, and I didn't want to put the book down until the finale. Scottish aspects? Not many -- mostly a good modern British-style crime novel, well paced and well written.

Read one Muir, and you may well want to read some others -- but you don't need to cover these in sequence. Good stuff.

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

Exploring Immigration Through Crime Fiction, MIGUEL'S GIFT, Bruce Kading

Bruce Kader's first novel, MIGUEL'S GIFT, takes place mostly in the 1980s -- a good way to distance the issue of illegal immigration and enforced deportation from today's difficult political climate. At the same time, this crime novel, told mostly from the point of view of INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) agents, offers a fascinating view of the issues that have become today's fuel for flame.

Joining the INS in Chicago in the late 1980s without having taken the "old boys" route through Border Patrol first, Nick Hayden has the rookie cards stacked against him. Idealistic and "overeducated" for the job, Hayden really wants to fit in anyway. His enthusiasm and remain edgy and uncertain.

Still, he's almost managed to fit in with the investigative teams, when the recruitment of an inside agent among the "wets" (illegal Latin American immigrants) and his own commitment to the man at risk derail his confidence in the work. But he's been harboring some odd doubts anyway -- some from a secret past of his own. They show up in his subconscious, long before he meets Miguel Chavez:
Hayden usually didn't remember his dreams and made little effort to do so. To him they were mere flights of the imagination, not to be taken seriously. But there was one dream he'd begun to have almost every week, and it disturbed him. It would always begin in a desert, the sun blazing through a cloudless sky -- the peaks of dry, craggy mountains looming hazily in the distance. Several figures in brown robes, like those of Franciscan monks, shuffled slowly along a sandy path. ... Nick, from a distance, would call out to get their attention, but they couldn't hear him.
Kading's own pre-novelist career as a federal special agent took him into the INS, the EPA, and the FBI (what a combination!).  So I was fascinated by the emotions and choices he provided for his fictional agents. Knowing some people who work on this side of today's enforcement issues also kept me glued to the pages, even when the writing was a bit too much "telling" instead of showing, and conversations felt overly predictable. I found the mild suspense of the novel was heightened by my curiosity over how Kading would bring about the climax and where his protagonist would end up -- as well as Miguel and his family, of course!

So I recommend this book strongly as an emotionally honest way to look at both the human and the criminal sides of immigration crime. It's not always a strong book, but it's a much-needed one, and I'm glad it came my way -- from Academy Chicago, an imprint of the Chicago Review Press.

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Maine Mystery, TIGHTENING THE THREADS, from Lea Wait

Lea Wait crafts two mystery series from her Maine home. The darker of the two is her Mainely Needlepoint series -- still an "amateur sleuth" type, as needlepointer Angie Curtis doesn't mean to become an investigator. But when her friend and fellow needlepointer Sarah Byrne suddenly discloses how she chose the seaside town for her new home, after leaving behind Australia, Angie can't help feeling intrigued. A mysterious family connection revealed? A possible fortune in artwork for her friend? TIGHTENING THE THREADS takes an ominous cast early on, and the complications multiply.

When Sarah is suddenly accused of murder, as well as fabricating her new family connection, Angie can't resist stepping into the scene of the crime. But who could plan a deliberate murder within an old-time lobster bake among family members? And among all the possible people who could profit from this death, how can Angie prove Sarah's not responsible?

Angie's also the perfect investigator for this crime because it involves rediscovering family. Readers of the series know that Angie's newly returned to her Maine roots, but even so, she still doesn't know enough about her mother, and nothing at all about her father. She's a witness to the moment that sets Sarah up, ironically, as the potential killer-for-profit when artist uncle Ted Lawrence announces the connection:
Ted wasn't finished. Ignoring Michael's outburst, he continued.

"As I said, we can get into the particulars of Sarah's story, and her journey to find us, later this week. But for now, just know that I believe with all my heart that Sarah is my niece. And that, because I knew questions would be asked about such an amazing story, I convinced her that we should have DNA tests. And, yes, they proved that, despite her name and accent, she is a Lawrence. I might add that during the few months I've known her she's more than proved herself worthy of our family. Sarah" -- he raised his glass -- "I drink to you, and officially in the presence of my children, welcome you to our family."
Wait's adroit twisting of the family reunion hides other complications, and her protagonist, with dogged Maine persistence, begins to uncover more motives, more opportunities, and more methods that could be involved in uncle Ted's sudden demise.

Although this is Wait's darker series, it's never gruesome ... even as I shuddered at moments as the seaside family home turned into the backdrop for old resentments and long-nurtured malice. Convincing and swiftly paced, TIGHTENING THE THREADS continues Wait's strong set of titles (this is the fifth in this series), and it's clear there are more surprises ahead in sleuth Angie Curtis's new life in her grandmother's home town.

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Brief Mention, EXECUTIVE ORDER, Max Allan Collins with Matthew V. Clemens

The third in the "Reeder and Rogers" government espionage series is a winner! Max Allan Collins and Matthew V. Clemens have spun a page-turner that opens with the death of four US agents as Russia invades yet another small nation -- then security contractor Joe Reeder finds himself in direct contact with the US President, on a mission to figure out why the agents turned up there in the first place.

EXECUTIVE ORDER races the clock as Reeder and his FBI ally Patti Rogers struggle to sort this out, alongside an apparent murder of the Secretary of the Interior. Collins and Clemens set the adventure in the not too distant future, a clever way to allow a few extra scientific discoveries and a heap of intervening history. But the dark forces moving against the President -- and Reeder and Rogers -- are motivated by a familiar urge: "What [Lawrence Morris] and all of the loyalists enacted was part of their overall mission to restore the greatness that President Harrison had so recklessly squandered."

Half the time I thought I'd accidentally turned on some current news in this thriller; the other half, I reminded myself that it's the reader's job to let go of preconceptions and ride the flow of fictional events without too many questions. I had a really good time reading this -- I'd say it's pure escape fiction at its liveliest, except, of course, the themes of conflict within the federal government are serious and a real threat in our own time.

Hope we can create as good a resolution to today's stresses and chaos as Collins and Clemens do in EXECUTIVE ORDER.

You don't need to read the two earlier titles in the series first -- Supreme Justice  and Fate of the Union -- because the authors carry the plot just fine. But it's fun to recognize some side mentions and if you're enjoying the pace and action, the other two belong on your shelf, too.

No full review here because Clemens has become a friend. Also the book publisher is Thomas & Mercer, in paperback original form, which makes it tough to recommend for collecting. Pick up a copy for the fun of it, though!

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Snappy Plotting, Smart Amateur Sleuth, in Sara Rosett's New MOTHER'S DAY, MUFFINS, AND MURDER

Texas mystery author Sara Rosett writes both "cozy" mysteries and a "heist" series -- and she's a tight, clever writer with a great eye for character and believable twists.

MOTHER'S DAY, MUFFINS, AND MURDER is way better than the slightly silly title suggests. Set at a Georgia elementary school where freelance home organizer Elly Avery often volunteers -- backing up the great teachers and staff who nurture her two kids -- the book opens with a hectic scene during one of the last weeks of the school year, when teachers, parents and enthusiastic students race around outside, enjoying special events and meals. Elly's one of the lead organizers for parent support (from gamekeeping to muffins to meeting the barbecued lunch caterers), so she's in and out of the office and classrooms, well, almost all day long.

Which makes her one of the first to know when another visitor spots a woman's body stuffed into a storage closet, followed immediately by a fire drill that keeps Elly from immediately reporting the discovery to the police. By the time things are running normally again for the kids, the body's gone.

But that's just the start of Elly's discovery of a series of uneasy and ultimately very dangerous interactions happening among the school's staff. Unlike many an "amateur sleuth," Elly Avery makes smart decisions and takes good care of herself and her kids (her husband's away on a military operation). And that makes it a pleasure to ride along with her as she unfolds the layers of deception at the school, mostly staying out of clear danger until the book's well-paced and intense finale.

Hard to believe this is the first I've read from this accomplished author. Trust me, I'll be looking for more! I've already checked out her website: http://www.sararosett.com. MOTHER'S DAY etc. (the only thing I wished changed was the book title) is published by Kensington and came out a couple of weeks ago. Worth grabbing a copy for the summer reading stack!

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

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Who's Looking for an Instant Mystery Bookstore? Our Collection's Available


Today is the official date of closing Kingdom Books as a mystery collector's paradise. When Dave and I met (and yes, we soon married) 15 years ago this month, we decided to create the kind of mystery bookstore we'd want to step into: full of books in prime condition, many of them signed by the authors, and ranging from Sherlock Holmes pastiches to hard-boiled crime to police procedurals and traditional amateur-sleuth mysteries ... and including a wide time span, from the classics (Tey, Christie, Upfield, Hammett) to the newest strong mysteries in this week's New York Times book reviews. And, of course, in our own book reviews.

The book reviewing will continue -- I can't stop reading mysteries, and I enjoy putting them into perspective for other readers to consider.

And we have a few items we're letting go of in a little eBay "store" online (click here if you're curious).

But the signs are down, the door is shut, and slowly the books are moving from the shelves into boxes.

If you've dreamed of opening a mystery bookshop, or want to instantly add a wonderful mystery wing to what you have, let us know! We have about 2500 books available, as a single lot only; we're glad to send you the list. About half are signed, and they are all in lovely condition (fine and near-fine, first editions, for the most part).

We're not going away, and we're not sad (well, maybe a little sad). There are some great adventures ahead, and we both will be writing more, in our new life pattern. Stick with us for later discoveries! And, of course, tap your e-mail address into the white box on this page to get the fresh book reviews without any effort. I've got a long list of great titles to describe in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

[In case you wondered -- this is not an April Fool post -- despite the date.]

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

If You're Missing Father Brown, Check out THE DAY OF THE LIE from William Brodrick

American readers may not have crossed paths with British author William Brodrick before this -- but Overlook Press is bringing out the fourth in his Father Anselm series at the end of this month (March 28), with more of the series to come. And that's a great treat for those of us who cut our mystery teeth on G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories -- as well as for readers intrigued by the frictions of Europe's small nations and large conflicts.

THE DAY OF THE LIE takes Father Anselm out of his monastic retreat, to assist an old friend in danger -- spiritual more than physical, it seems. At least, Father Anselm's Prior already seems to know more than Anselm about John Fielding's troubles and guilt. And for much of the book, that's the very human strand that will keep Anselm pursuing the truths of a dangerous time in Eastern Europe, and the path of a woman named Roza, who'd been a revolutionary all her life. In fact, it's Roza's reappearance in John Fielding's life that pulls the old friend to Anselm's door, with a desperate request: "I need a lawyer."

That makes more sense than you might realize if you didn't already know that Anselm had abandoned a career at the bar to become a monastic priest. Anselm's the one that John needs -- but at first the priest is sure his Prior will say no to the request. After all, you join a monastery in order to stay within its walls, right? But the Prior is prepared -- and ready to warn Anselm about this sleuthing action he's about to tackle:
"I want you to be vigilant, Anselm," began the Prior, watching where he was putting his feet. Branches had fallen during the recent bout of high winds. ... "I don't wish to offend you, but regardless of your many years in the criminal courts, you have no experience of the place to which you are going and the dangers it holds. Nor is it a prison cell where you're protected by that strange respect which even the most violent men hold for representatives of the law ... You'll be entering the world of Otto Brack, this frightening man who learned how to bring about evil by exploiting someone who is good, laying -- in part -- the evil at their door. I have never come across that before. You must take special precautions."

Anselm was unnerved by the Prior's declamatory tone. It was reserved for funerals. He was surprised, too, but the warning. The plan was to fly to Warsaw, open a file, have a quick read, eat some pickled cucumber, drink himself senseless, and then come home. The chances of mishap were remote. He said so.
Of course, Anselm's error of misjudging the danger comes from a lack of information, and it seems very unfair that the Prior won't or can't share what's already been exposed by John Fielding. But there it is, and soon Father Anselm is on his way to a land drenched in the tragedies of centuries of violence and injustice. And yes, evil. With strange roots, though.

Brodrick's writing has won much acclaim, especially for the first in this series, The Sixth Lamentation. He has his own experience as both an Augustinian friar-in-training and barrister to draw on. And he has a complex and intriguing tale to tell, saturated with violence and regrets.

Patience is required for THE DAY OF THE LIE, though, as some of the narrative is jerky, and references to characters sometimes aren't clear. Jumps in time and place add to the dislocation. Still, the compelling story makes it worth putting up with the book's flawed movement, and the pace is rapid and intense, with characters worth caring about. I'll be looking for the others in the series -- and hope Overlook will quickly make them available.

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

Murder in Small-Town Indiana, WHEN THE GRITS HIT THE FAN, Maddie Day

Ready for a "cozy" mystery that keeps things stirred up but will send you to the kitchen, instead of into bad dreams? Maddie Day's "Country Store Mystery" series is prepped just right, off the breakfast griddle and into the sort of amateur investigation that rings true to small-town life.

In the third book in the series, WHEN THE GRITS HIT THE FAN (release date March 28), restaurant owner Robbie Jordan ought to have a peaceful winter season for her mostly breakfasts shop, Pans 'N Pancakes. It's not tourist season, and the nearby Indiana University campus doesn't directly affect her, but she's just started hosting the Sociology Department dinner gatherings, which ought to help with cash flow.

In classic cozy fashion, the book opens with a gathering where it's clear that a lot of people have reason to dislike Professor Charles Stilton, whose specialty appears to be mean comments -- when he's not baldly stealing the work of his graduate student or emotionally abusing his wife and son. So to readers of the genre, it's no surprise that Robbie Jordan and her friend Lou, the graduate student whose work was stolen, find Stilton dead the next morning. But author Maddie Day (one of the pen names for New England author Edith Maxwell, who has some Indiana roots) knows how to liven the story with unusual twists -- from local family secrets to revelations in the restaurant's old upstairs rooms to the kinds of stress that thrive in academia.

Robbie Jordan's experience (see the two previous titles, Flipped for Murder and Grilled for Murder) in helping sort out crimes for her friends means several of the presumed suspects lean on her right away. She hears things the police don't necessarily, because she's becoming part of the town herself. For example, there's her not-so-casual questioning of the library assistant, Georgia, who's been accused of being the killer:
I pulled my scarf closer around my neck and turned on the bench to face Georgia. "I keep thinking about the murder."

She winced and averted her eyes.

"I wanted to ask if you knew about any other people, locals, who had a beef with Charles. I can't picture any of the so-called persons of interest actually killing him -- my friend Lou, her department chair Zen Brown, Maude, Ron. None of those make any sense. And definitely not you."

"You know, Charles was very charming in public. From a distance. I think a lot of folks liked him thought he was smart and a nice guy, but if you had any close dealings with him, whoa. Watch out. He'd stab you in the back."

"That sounds bad."

"I've seen him in action." She glanced at me. "Not a pretty picture."
The pace is smart, chatty, and steady, and whips into high tension in the last few chapters, as Robbie's persistent defense of her friends plus her ability to put the facts together take her into the sights of the killer.

A good read, with plenty of rural Indiana color and lots of food and wine chatter -- and of course, a handful of recipes at the end, including one for Grits with Cheese that I just might have to try soon.

I'm posting this review a bit early to make room for readers who like to preorder, but also because it's a busy season for the author. She has three very active "amateur sleuth" mysteries, and her next book, Called for Justice (a Quaker series), comes out in a couple of weeks under the Edith Maxwell author name. Great fun to follow all her books at once; for lists and news, check out her website here.

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


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ninth Inspector Shan (Tibet) Crime Novel from Eliot Pattison, SKELETON GOD

Eliot Pattison's first book in the Inspector Shan series, Skull Mantra, earned him an Edgar Award. The series has consistently grown deeper and stronger each year, and now the ninth book SKELETON GOD, pits Shan against the Chinese military occupation of Tibet with tremendous risks: that he might lose his hard-won visits with his imprisoned son Ko, and that he might lose his life -- for the sake of the people and heritage of this rough land.

Shan's situation as the book opens seems mildly perilous but better than many he's already navigated: He wears the hated Chinese uniform of a local constable in the rural town of Yangkar, as part of a deal he's cut with the powerful Colonel Tan, his nemesis from preceding years. Although the Tibetans who've returned to live in the re-manufactured town don't trust him (prejudice works both ways), he at least has some professional standing, and most importantly, Ko is to visit him without shackles, for a few days every three months. When murders and devastation infect his town and he can't stop the killings and destruction, Shan fears he'll never see Ko after all.

But just when it looks like, against the odds, he'll have his son's companionship, Colonel Tan bulldozes into the town, angry at the chaos, grimly admitting to Shan, " I gave you the quietest post in my county, so remote no one would ever hear your howls of desperation."

Shan's passion for the old Tibetans and his embrace of their spiritual life and rituals mean he can't walk away (and if he did, how would he see Ko?). He faces Colonel Tan as both of them realize they have a joint enemy in the powerful "heroic" veteran General Lau, who despises them.
"Karma," Shan said at last. "It's like divine justice. That's the only kind that will ever reach General Lau."

Tan cocked his head. "Surely Lau is not implicated. Don't even bother to suggest it. Lau would never kill soldiers. He just sees some kind of opportunity in this. He's bored in retirement. He found a diversion."

Shan looked longingly out the window toward the café where his son sat. He wanted so to be there with him, to take him home, to walk with him on a quiet mountain path, to rejoice with him in his temporary freedom and begin the list of activities he had planned for his visit. He glanced at his watch. "Give me a couple hours of your time," he said instead.
A pair of misplaced Americans, hidden histories of the town's past and the violence of the Chinese takeover, revelations of what Shan himself needs to learn -- all these are in play as, layer by layer, the careful investigator peels back the secrets around him and earns the trust of some of his neighbors ... and the dangerous enmity of others. Is there a treasure hidden on the Ghost Plain nearby? What remnants of the ancient Tibetan medical school may linger in the people around him? Can Colonel Tan still exert enough power to protect Shan against other Chinese military manipulations?

This is a highly satisfying book, where the small links and clues accumulate and are at last organized into a twist of plot that surprises even the investigator. The book's resolution is emotionally fitting as well. Consider what it may mean that a yak has been ransomed from death, and a raven persists in flying over the mountain that guards the secrets of the past.

As the author says in his end note, "The shadow that settled over Tibet decades ago sometimes makes writing novels set in that land feel like searching for jewels in a dim cave. ... The shadow may exist, but dig a little deeper and brilliance can still shine through."

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

World War I and the Werewolves and Priests ... Book II of Tarn Richardson's Darkest Hand Trilogy

I swore I'd never read those crazy books that mingled crime fiction and the paranormal -- until I picked up one of John Connolly's and realized the hauntings and lines of evil portrayed were really good metaphors for the kinds of crime that even rural areas find poisoning the well of life from time to time. And then I more or less tripped over Tarn Richardson's first book in his "The Darkest Hand Trilogy," The Damned. As I wrote in my review of The Damned last year, Richardson's choice to use an enduring Catholic Inquisition, warrior priests, and accursed werewolves turned out to be an apt way to portray the blood-soaked years that made up World War I.

Now the second book is available: THE FALLEN. Crusading inquisitor Poldek Tacit suffers the most horrific tortures of the Inquisition as the book opens -- while the dark forces he once battled are in motion from within the heart of the Vatican, laboring to be sure the killing grounds are truly saturated with the blood of Europe's finest generation.

As Tacit reflects on the secrets and maneuvers that resulted in his imprisonment -- for preventing carnage at a "Mass of Peace" in Notre Dame attended by international peacemakers -- he's well aware that if he'd been true to his depressed, angry, despairing self, and less susceptible to a nun's kindness and integrity, he might not be in this plight.
In a world fuelled by hate, at the end it was a love Tacit thought he never could feel again, this time for Isabella, which brought salvation for him and save Isabella. Making sure she was out of harm's way, Tacit had bounded alone into the Mass for Peace and blasted Cardinal Monteira from the pulpit just moments before he had slipped the stinking wolf's pelt over his head and transformed into a bloodthirsty werewolf. Tacit wondered if he could have done anything differently to save himself, to avoid arrest. ... No, he would have changed nothing.
Meanwhile, Isabella too is examining the events and catching up with their causes, in the company of a young officer and his partner, less tortured but also in danger:
"Stop!" she said. "Stop! ... You're telling me great swathes of people have sided with the Devil? That it originates from within the Vatican? That they are attempting to see his return to the world? ... I will not believe it for a moment!"

"And that is why they are allowed to grow, fester like a disease in a wound. For long we have investigated. They are preparing his domain. But he will only return when the world is truly ready, and his lieutenants are in place ... they must be stopped."
Fear not, the Poldek Tacit/Isabella romance never has a chance to heat up the way that a certain vampire series did a decade ago. THE FALLEN swiftly turns into a series of battles on the Italian front of the First World War ("the war to end all wars") that author Tarn Richardson notes (at the book's end) have been seemingly forgotten -- yet were held in extreme conditions and cost the lives of almost half a million men.

The abrupt, short chapters of the book -- there are more than a hundred -- fit this battle-by-battle crushing force of history well. And Richardson's use of his alternate history makes more sense out of the insistent killings than any dry narrative could. Tacit's determination to stop the forces of evil swiftly leads to his own position as a piece to sacrifice in the game. Can he make the sacrifice effective enough, worth the dying?

When I finally came up for air after reading this, I felt like I understood the cost of that war much better. Horror is sometimes the truth of those millions of deaths, isn't it? I'm looking forward to next year's finale. Meanwhile, I have a satisfyingly different point of view from which to look at some other powerful World War I narratives again, from those of Charles Todd's guilt-haunted mysteries to the heartbreaking clarity of Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy.  And, of course, some nonfiction on the Great War -- even if that's not as strong a historical narrative as Richardson's own. From Overlook Press, publisher once again of the uncannily insightful.

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