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.