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!

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."


"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: 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.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Extraordinary Storytelling, Randall Silvis, TWO DAYS GONE

Randall Silvis's books have rolled along since 1984. Not all of them are crime fiction, but enough of them are so that I'm bewildered that I haven't ready any of his earlier titles. I'll be making up for that now -- because TWO DAYS GONE, one of three books of his coming out this year (!), is a marvelous read.

In some ways it's the perfect book for anyone who loves to speculate on the author behind the story. Police Sergeant Ryan DeMarco has his own deep sorrows, but he's always thought local resident Thomas Huston -- a college professor in their Pennsylvania town -- has the perfect life. Wife and children who thrive on Huston's love, a well-respected teaching job with mostly wonderful students, colleagues who ... again, mostly ... respect him. And the next book already underway, no issues with writer's block at all. DeMarco needs Huston's warm friendship, and he's deeply curious about how the novelist works. So the last thing he expects is Huston's family to be slaughtered. Huston himself is missing and is the presumed murderer. What happened? What could make this man snap? And if Huston, with so much going right, could descend into criminal madness, could DeMarco himself be at risk?

Of course, there are complications as DeMarco investigates. For instance, one young man who'd seen Huston as his life-changing mentor calls Tom Huston "perfection," and DeMarco realizes suddenly what the subtext is:
Softly he said, "Did he know how you felt about him?"

A tiny movement flitted at the corner of Briessen's eye, a twitch, a wince. Then he shrugged. "It was never expressed, never talked about. But I'm sure he knew."

DeMarco waited for the rest of it.

"The thing about Tom is, right from the start, he treated me like an equal. I mean I might never publish a single word. But he respected my ... intent, you know? He respected the dream. More than anything else, that's what made him so special to me."

De Marco allowed half a minute to pass in silence. "You have any idea where he might be, Nathan?"

"I wish like h*ll I did. Imagine what he must be going through right now."

"I've been doing my best to image just that. Where would he go? What would he do?"
"I think he's looking for the killer."
And just like that, DeMarco knows he'd not alone in wanting desperately to believe that Thomas Huston didn't slaughter his wife and children. But where is he? And why won't he come in to the police, if there's a chance he's innocent after all?

The more DeMarco investigates, the more he realizes that Huston's authorial research put him at risk, involving young prostitutes and their pimps. But the pieces won't fit with the crime.

Tender exploration of how stories emerge for writers takes place, and the plot gently twists, then twists again, until the final events in TWO DAYS LOST are stunning -- but totally fitting.

A highly recommended book. Author material at the end gives added insight to Silvis's own authorial dreams -- making the book even more of a gem. Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, and as I mentioned at the start, I'll be looking for other Silvis books to enjoy later.

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

Friday, March 10, 2017

Brief Mention, Ann Cleeves, RED BONES

I've been catching up with some books I missed when they first came out, and it was a huge pleasure to pick up RED BONES by Ann Cleeves (2009). This British author is highly awarded (most recently the CWA Diamond Dagger) and her Shetland series -- four crime novels set in the Shetland Islands -- goes way beyond mystery, to probe the tragedies of individuals and families. Every page carries weight and loss, as well as the potential for redemption. No wonder it also morphed into a TV series, following Inspector Jimmy Perez as he learns the dark sides of the community he loves.
The words came out in a rush. Nerves? Perez wondered. Or is it just passion for her subject? 'And now Paul Berglund's in charge?'

'He's my supervisor. Yes.'

She doesn't like the man, Perez thought. Then he saw her face freeze again. No, he thought with surprise. It's more than that. She's scared of him.
Worth checking out this author's website, too; here's a link to the Shetland book series.

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

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

1917 Crime Novel from David Downing, LENIN'S ROLLER COASTER

David Downing's World War II series set in Berlin, Germany, starting with Zoo Station, turned the cruelties and disasters of wartime Germany into a panoramic backdrop for a series of espionage adventures and some serious grown-up romance. After those six books, Downing moved to World War I and a set of very different espionage novels, featuring brash British spy Jack McColl and his star-crossed lover, an Irish-American journalist, Caitlin Hanley.

The couple's extreme risks in Jack of Spies and One Man's Flag pitted them politically against each other: Jack working for the British government, and Caitlin taking the side of the Irish rebels, in spite of an effort at journalistic balance. In the process, Caitlin's brother died, with Jack mortally involved -- and although finally sharing details brings some relief from guilt and blame, there's still doubt about how well Caitlin and Jack can handle being a couple, considering their jobs and loyalties.

So we open in 1917 in LENIN'S ROLLER COASTER, with a pair of workers' revolutions in Russia while the rest of Europe is tugging the "Reds" into the Great War. Caitlin wants to reconnect with her Bolshevik friends, to build stories of the massive changes in human history taking place; Jack's assigned to blowing up bridges and anything else that will keep the Germans from getting the arms and other supplies they need to win the war against England and France.

Downing's Berlin (World War II) series unfolded a very different side of that war, the "home front" in what was once one of Europe's most elegant and civilized cities -- but this new World War I series, partly because it's further back in time but also because American readers, at least, know fewer details, challenges Downing to create fully fleshed settings and motives. Motive, on the other hand, is emphatically not a problem for the people pushing Jack and Caitlin around: They know what they want, and they'll kill readily to move their causes forward. Even Caitlin's closest, kindest friends turn out to have a talent for violence, without regrets.

The weight of so much detail to introduce moves LENIN'S ROLLER COASTER off the pace of traditional espionage or crime fiction, though. Pages upon pages pile up with background and explanations. Interior comments from the characters aren't sufficient to whip the pace. A sample of the text: "If the Bolshevik experiment ended in failure, Caitlin thought the failure should be their own. If Lenin and the party went down to defeat, it should be at the hands of the Russian people, not a cabal of foreign interests in league with past oppressors."

When the two adventurers finally cross paths in Moscow, the friction between them adds striking danger to each one's pursuits. But it takes three-fourths of the book to reach that part -- a long journey made lively at the halfway point by Jack's unexpected fostering of an orphan, but otherwise challenging for readers who seek a rapid pace and costly decisions made under fire. Oddly, the book seems to have taken on some of the Russian literary maneuvers and density.

This means that if you like Russian espionage, an unusual face of World War I (the Great War, the war to end all wars), and insight into the factions that clashed after the Russian Revolution, this book's meant for you. Think Boris Akunin, for instance -- plan to spend time with this one.

I'm a committed Downing fan, for the meticulous historic details and cultural insight, as well as the face of fiction. And I was glad to take my time in reading LENIN'S ROLLER COASTER. But I have relatively few readers I'll recommend this one to -- because it's so far off the genre's usual conventions. Downing is an amazing author; I'm hoping there are enough "unconventional" readers out there to keep this series going, and to satisfy the hunger to see Jack and Caitlin somehow reconnect once the shooting is over. All from Soho Crime, of course.

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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Heads Up: Emelie Schepp, MARKED FOR REVENGE, and Bill Pronzini, THE VIOLATED

I won't be posting full reviews of these two books coming out in the next week or so, but want to mention them -- and the reasons for my choices.

Emelie Schepp lives in Sweden, and her "Marked" trilogy is being adeptly translated -- the second book, MARKED FOR REVENGE, was moved into English seamlessly by Suzanne Martin Cheadle (it's hard to even tell it was translated). It's suspense, with high stakes; the protagonist, prosecutor Jana Berzelius, is investigating the international drug trade and child trafficking in Sweden.

My problem with it is really my own ... I find graphic child abuse really hard to read. I read all of the first book in this series, Marched for Life, and couldn't bear to reframe it as a review. As soon as I started reading the second book, MARKED FOR REVENGE (release date February 28), all the emotions from the first book rolled back at me. I've skimmed book 2, and it's brilliantly plotted and tightly written. But again, the level of abuse and violence is so far outside my comfort zone (which is pretty wide really ... I have read and enjoyed most of Andrew Vachss and Carol O'Connell, for example, as well as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) that I'm not going to spell it all out. If you're into it, you can see reviews elsewhere. Sorry.

For a very different reason, I'm not going to present THE VIOLATED, the March 7 release from Grand Master of Mystery Bill Pronzini. This one's an audacious attempt at narrating the investigation of a serial rapist's career and murder from multiple points of view. I thought the technique took the book into being very flat, and the tension never rose the way a good work of suspense should. Not did the character acquire enough depth. Even the California setting didn't quite come to life. I can't recommend it -- but that said, Pronzini is generally marvelous, and if you haven't yet read any of his books, do try some of the others. I'll be watching for his next book, figuring that he too knows this one didn't work out as well as he'd hoped ... so he'll create a major winner on the next round.

Obviously, if you're a Pronzini collector, you'll pick up a copy of THE VIOLATED anyway. Go for it.

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

British Spies Who Break Your Heart, from Mick Herron, SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron has done it again -- written an espionage novel where the characters might as well be members of your own family. (Maybe they are, and Herron just changed the names.) It's the fourth in his Slough House series of British "spooks" who've made major mistakes in their careers and have ended up in a painfully humiliating backwater of spydom, headed by the unpleasant, unclean, and constantly flatulant Jackson Lamb.

And if SPOOK STREET were just a riff on this situation, the misery of being labeled a career failure with no way to regain a decent spying slot, or the black humor of a physically disgusting boss in a falling-down building, well, who'd want to read it?

But instead, it's a vivid and achingly sad (and also terrifyingly funny!) mingling of the once cream of the crop, still smart and savvy but isolated, with their humanity way out in front of them. There's Louisa Guy, expecting (with mixed feelings) a sexual come-on from one of the younger men in the group, River Cartwright; the midlife stylish Roderick Ho, a genius on a computer but a disaster at reading his colleagues; the new and apparently both crazy and dangerous colleague JK Coe, whose PTSD seems to live in his fingers, which keep fingering an invisible piano in an effort to drown out what he remembers. And more.

The thing is, they all care about each other. Well, maybe not Coe -- he's too new to matter much -- but all the others hiss and spit and in the long run would lay down their lives to save each other, as dry-drunk Catherine Standish did in an earlier book of the series, and River Cartwright has, too. Even Jackson Lamb himself somehow cares, if only to spite the other Secret Service teams: If you're one of his "joes," he won't let you drown. Much.

So in spite of their frequent mistakes and bad language, the washed-up spies of Slough House grabbed a bit of my heart long ago. In this fourth title, the office sniping and insults fall way short of the disaster that's taking place: River Cartwright's once-famous grandfather, who still know enough to sink the Secret Service (which is one reason River is at Slough House, not out on the street), has dementia. At what point will the mainstream spy network discover this fatal failing? Will someone try to take advantage of the elder Cartwright (known mostly as the O.B., which does not stand for Old Boy, but Old B--, well, you know)? Or will he be mercifully executed before he can spill his dangerous old secrets? That's River's problem in terms of his aging grandfather. A very big problem.
Louisa had said: Yeah, I wasn't actually suggesting they'd have him murdered, though I can see you've put some thought into that.

But how could he, his grandfather's grandson, not have done?

And what really worries me, River had wanted to tell her, is that he's always loved telling stories. Even now, visits meant sitting in the O.B.'s study, sharing a drink and hearing secrets. That these had grown confused, frequently petering out down lanes that led nowhere, didn't mean they were no longer secret, and the thought of the O.B. on his daily pilgrimage round the village -- butcher, baker, post office lady -- weaving for all the same webs he'd spun for River, had kept him awake two nights on the trot.
It turns out River's right to be concerned, and nearly too late, as Jackson Lamb soon finds himself identifying a former spy's body for the police ... but who has shot whom? And what does all of this have to do with River's missing mother, and his unknown father? Not to mention the terrorism that starts the plot spinning?

By the time everything is "sorted," we know a lot more about each of the Slough Horses, especially River, but also the inimitable Catherine Standish, and even the mysterious JK Coe.

I don't know how I'm going to wait an entire year for the next in this series, from Soho Crime.

Can you jump directly into SPOOK STREET without having read Slow Horses, Dead Lions, and Real Tigers first? Of course you can. Mick Herron is an amazing storyteller, and you'll be just fine.

Besides, your heart won't clench up nearly as hard that way -- because the more you get to know Mick Herron's desperate group of failed spies, the more you'll care about them. I do.

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

Third Linda Wallheim Crime Novel, FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES, from Mette Ivie Harrison

There's a marvelous uncertainty about jumping into a crime fiction series as a reader, not starting with the first book. Will the experience be more powerful because the author has grown in the process of writing earlier books in the series? Or lack resonance because you as the reader don't really know what's developed in the protagonist's life before this book? Or will it be sort of neutral -- because the author is skillful enough to paint the important details of the past without being long-winded, so it doesn't matter whether you've read the earlier books or not?

An example of a series where it's important to read in sequence is David Downing's John Russell espionage series, set in Berlin, Germany, during the Second World War. Russell and his lover Effi Koenen, an actress uneasily performing for the German High Command as John forcibly serves British, American, Russian, and German needs, grow and change in their priorities and goals across the series (and across the war). Start with Zoo Station and savor the author's process, the characters' journeys, and the plots that stand alone in each book, yet dovetail smoothly into the war's history.

A parallel crime fiction series with a very different feel is another Second World War series, the Billy Boyle investigations, written by James Benn. Boyle, new generation in a family of Boston cops, works secretly for General Eisenhower as a detective, and although subsequent books sketch in deftly some of the adventures Boyle and his friends experienced in the earlier ones, his development is the kind you'd expect for a police detective growing more skillful and more dedicated over the years -- it's enjoyable to enter the series at any book, and even to skip around among them. Benn frames each as its own special world of risk and intrigue.

Where in this set of considerations should we place the books by Mette Ivie Harrison? Her third in her Linda Wallheim series, like the other  two (The Bishop's Wife, His Right Hand) exposes the protagonist to a disturbed family situation that she feels obligated to address -- because she is the wife of a leader in the family's religious community, the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka LDS). FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES sees Linda Wallheim grapple with another of the reasons that she finds her church difficult: its history of plural marriage and the fragments of existing cults that still cling to that tradition. Wallheim's earlier "amateur sleuth" investigations have involved the duty of spouses to each other, and the acceptance (or rejection) of same-sex love when family members reveal they no longer fit the church's doctrines.

In a sense, Harrison's series resembles Benn's -- the protagonist does not rely on her emotional or mindful learning from earlier books as she goes along, and Harrison's adept portrayal of the church she herself loves supports each book's plot well. When friction arises at the start of this third book, Wallheim is horrified by what she hears from her son Kenneth as he reveals details about a new girlfriend:
There was a long pause and I realized we weren't done with the difficult part of the conversation. "We met at a former Mormons group. We call it Mormons Anonymous."

Mormons Anonymous -- like Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous? As if my religion were some kind of addictive behavior that you had to recover from?
Harrison has been open in sharing some of her own struggles with that church. Having experienced a profound loss of faith and then a restoration of it, she is a member in good standing in the LDS. Her website admits that her first crime novel was part of her struggle with how to face the conflicts in the group. She is careful to note the differences between her own faith journey and Linda Wallheim's; still, she is clearly still tugging at the most painful issues of the mainstream LDS structure, and showing some of the issues through her fiction.

Wallheim stumbles, through wanting to help her son, into a group that's living with plural marriage -- the usual form, multiple wives (and children) to one powerful husband. She's soon aware of dysfunctional undercurrents in the situation, and overdoes her involvement.

When the plot blossoms into a death, possibly a murder, Wallheim makes an enormous error of judgment (and making an error of judgment is of course classic in an amateur sleuth plot): She goes along with not calling in the police.

And here, as a mystery reader, I found myself in deep disagreement -- I could not "buy" that this experienced wife of a dedicated church leader would jeopardize her marriage and commit a crime herself (helping to cover up the death) for the sake of holding this terrible family together.

My flaw? Or the book's? I'd love to hear from other readers on this issue.

However, my reaction changes how I feel about the series: If you are new to it, start with the first two books, please! You'll have a good chance of bonding to this smart, questioning, impromptu investigator and grasping the love and (overblown?) sense of responsibility that drive her into the sleuth role. And in that case, you'll definitely want to have book 3, FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES, to fit into the arc of narrative and the important changes to Wallheim's own family.

I'd suggest not jumping into book 3 without the others ... I think it won't stand well on its own, but may well be critical to read before we all have the chance to savor Harrison's fourth book in the series (which is doubtless mostly written at this point). Like Louise Penny's books, there's clearly an overall progress through the series -- and I want to enjoy every bit of it. From Soho Crime, another must-read series.

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Grit, Violence, Dark Losses - and Somehow, Love, in David Putnam's Fourth, THE VANQUISHED

Placing his Bruno Johnson series within a network of friends who've worked the worst police beats in Southern California guarantees that David Putnam's suspense fiction will continue dark and violent. The third in the series, The Squandered, was a really good read, with plenty of unexpected twists. Brotherly friendships and the intensity of police work made the novel unusual and I liked it.

Number four in the series, THE VANQUISHED, hits a lot of the same buttons. But this time Bruno and his wife Marie find their Costa Rica haven -- where they are hiding the abused kids they've rescued -- is under threat from old enemies in an outlaw motorcycle gang. With the kids at risk, Bruno charges back to California to straighten things out. Soon Marie's at his side.

And that's the one drawback of this one ... the Bruno/Marie pairing doesn't leave much room for the police brotherhood that I liked in The Squandered. But there's no question that THE VANQUISHED is a page-turner, jammed with threat and danger.

Putnam has the solid investigative past himself to make the twists in his book authentic, and that's good. But I missed the redemptive notes of the earlier book. If you pick up THE VANQUISHED, let me know what you think. A must-own for those who especially appreciate the wild motorcycle world, too. Published by Oceanview.

FBI Profiler Series from Elizabeth Heiter, STALKED (#4)

It may take a while before FBI suspense fiction written by women catches up in terms of publicity with what the taller sex is writing -- Elizabeth Heiter's "The Profiler" series ought to speed the process along, though. The fourth in this series, STALKED, takes profiler Evelyn Baine into new terrain in several ways: (1) She's tracking a vanished teen, Haley, in a time period well past when such cases usually end badly. (2) She's got to liaise with a prickly local police force in order to enter the case, and that's downright hard. (3) Her romantic relationship with former Hostage Rescue Team operator Kyle McKenzie is out in the open at last -- but also under immense stress, as Kyle faces the possibility that he may never be physically able to return to the HRT job that's the center of his self image.

And as Evelyn's own case heats up, becoming more dangerous, the pain she's inadvertently causing for Kyle could cripple her investigative instincts.

Set in the DC area, STALKED twists the assumptions around lost teens into new versions, ramping the suspense. (Lee Child and Tess Gerritsen are among the suspense authors praising the series and verifying that Heiter has her Bureau facts right.) And when the questions around Haley start interlocking with issues of possible human trafficking on a nearby college campus, the book becomes a must-read, a true page-turner.

Recommended -- and for those as intrigued as I was, the preceding books in the series are Hunted, Vanished, and Seized; the paperback original's publisher is MIRA.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

San Francisco Police Suspense from Jonathan Moore, THE DARK ROOM

A couple of weeks ago, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released Jonathan Moore's newest crime novel, THE DARK ROOM; there should still be plenty of time to collect a first printing of this powerful and intricately plotted investigation. Moore's third book, The Poison Artist, is also set in San Francisco, that city of fog and back alleys that forms such a powerful backdrop for pain and loss.  In Moore's hands, the city itself is an enabling force -- one that investigators must confront.

In THE DARK ROOM, we meet Gavin Cain, an SFPD homicide investigator. He's in the midst of witnessing an exhumation when a phone call drags him away at top speed: The city's mayor is being blackmailed about what looks like violent and sadistic sex games from his past. And Cain's task is to stop the possible release of dirty information about the mayor, as well as protecting him and his family -- against a very angry blackmailer with a ticking clock.

Complicating the investigation, for Cain, are threads that lead from it toward his own secret: He's become the committed lover of a former crime victim, whose chance at resuming normal life depends on his ability to protect her from further threats. Soon the cases inevitably cross, and the tension ramps up exponentially.

Despite the emotional risks involved, Cain's investigation is at heart a skilled and multipronged one, so that THE DARK ROOM is also an adept police procedural. Here's Cain thinking things through and prioritizing:
Cain stopped at a light on Santa Cruz Avenue, put his phone on his knee, and began to dictate a note to himself. This didn't require any real precision. He just spoke in a free flow of thoughts.

Thrallinex. Benzyldiomide.

Redding thought the drug was the key, and he might be right. In an hour, the ME could tell Cain how it compared to a hypnotic like Rohypnol, what a dozen pills would have done to the girl. Then there was the dress. When it came to high-end fashion, he had no idea where to begin. He'd been wearing the same suit three days running, and knew switching ties and shirts wasn't fooling anyone. But every problem had an entrance. Maybe a clerk in one of the shops around Union Square could poin him in the right direction.

The '84 Cadillac Eldorado was something he might be able to work with, though. No one had to register a dress. Pills got passed from hand to hand. But cops know how to find cars.
It's clear that the city's mayor has a dark past that's made him vulnerable. But it's the present that matters most, and Cain's hampered by the mayor's refusal to open up -- and tangled in the dodgy information that the mayor's family ekes out to him.

Intense pace, taut plotting, an investigator who gambles his own life to save others -- it all adds up to one heck of a good thriller, with a highly satisfying ending. Count this as a little darker than Michael Connelly in terms of plot, and a bit less dark in terms of how haunted the investigator is, but with the same gift of compelling storytelling and, of course, overlapping terrain.

Finally, there's a note from the author that makes it clear THE DARK ROOM is effectively the prequel to another book that Jonathan Moore had already written, called The Night Market. Its publication will follow this one (scheduled for January 2018). Count me among the people who will be preordering a copy.

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Paranormal Suspense, YA Style, from Jon Land and Heather Graham, THE RISING

Several mystery and thriller authors have woven paranormal threads into their work in recent years, and it often works well to highlight the powerful forces that move people into evil -- and sometimes the ones that help them survive, instead. John Connolly's series set in Maine, with Charlie Parker taking his best shot against deep old cunning spirits that hate life, provides a haunting rationale for the worst and the best in his terrain. Canadian Vicki Delany provoked heightened Gothic suspense in More Than Sorrow, and Carsten Stroud used hauntings and history to accentuate the wicked cruelty of plantation slavery in his bizarrely compelling detective trilogy set in and around Niceville.

In THE RISING, suspense author Jon Land turns from his mildly spirit-struck Texas Ranger series featuring Caitlin Strong (most recently in Strong Cold Dead) to partner with romance author Heather Graham -- rather unfairly described as a team of two thriller authors, since Graham's main strengths are in he-she tangles interwoven in her plots, as well as straightforward vampire and haunting threads. But unexpectedly, the duo's progeny turns out to be a sci-fi suspense offering featuring a pair of high school students destined to fall in love -- Alex Chin and Samantha (Sam) Dixon. Fair warning: Just a few pages into the book, it's clear there are space aliens involved, as well as an obscure NASA program. If you can bear to read further, there's an enjoyable page-turning suspense romp ahead, as Alex (an apparently White smart baby adopted by Chinese parents) struggles, with Sam's help, to locate and stop an alien invasion, armed with the basic skills of high-school geeks.

That said, brace for relatively "young adult" language and pacing in THE RISING. Here's an example:
Alex followed Sam's gaze to the black piece of fabric jewelry, which looked shiny as steel. She had straightened out the one she'd unfurled from his father's wrist.

"See?" she whispered.

But then it snapped back into place with a whapping sound.

Alex took it from her grasp and slid the thing that looked like a slap bracelet into his pocket. He lingered over his mother for what seemed a very long time, before pressing her eyes closed, sobbing and sniffling loudly. ...

"I'm sorry, Alex, I'm so sorry," [Sam] said, easing a hand to his shoulder, which felt hot and hard as banded steel.
Compare that to Land's more usual style, from Strong Cold Dead:
Jones unfolded the picture he was holding and held it so Caitlin could see a tall, gangly young man with a bad case of acne.

"Holy sh**," Caitlin said, not believing her eyes.

"Recognize him, I see."

"I spitted him yesterday bird-dogging a protest outside the Comanche Indian reservation near Austin."

... Jones looked down at the picture. "On a major terrorist suspect yesterday, because he happened to be in the same place as you. Then again, nothing just happens when it comes to Caitlin Strong, does it? You are a genuine force of nature, Ranger."
If you're collecting Land -- or Graham -- you'll want THE RISING for your shelf. Otherwise, mystery fans may want to stick with Land's basic Caitlin Strong series instead, in order to keep the wild suppositions within the range of the way every deadly crime haunts its environment and its people. On the other hand, those gathering the YA (young adult) books of mainstream crime authors like Harlan Coben will appreciate this divergence of Land's -- it's really a YA tease wrapped up in adult covers, and it's fun to go along for the ride.

NEXT: Straightforward California crime fiction from Jonathan Moore, and the newest British spy delight from Mick Herron.

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