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.