Monday, October 09, 2017

A Delightful 1930s Mystery from Cheryl Honigford, HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS

What fun to have a second mystery in the "Viv and Charlie" series from Chicago author Cheryl Honigford! I loved her first, The Darkness Knows (an irresistible radio drama mystery with hints of the old radio series "The Shadow"), and HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS is every bit as delicious -- a quick-paced amateur sleuth tale of the cash-strapped 1930s.

Vivian Witchell, a rising star in radio drama in the Windy City, has her eye on keeping the job she loves, no matter the pressure from home to step back into a more traditional woman's role, or the competition in the broadcasting studio, where flirtation is both a skill and a weapon. But at home, things have become complicated, and a discovery of both a hidden key and a wad of cash, with a threatening note, also threatens to undo the rosy glow Viv holds around her deceased father's life.

Fortunately, she's got a pro on her side: private detective Charlie Haverman. But that connection is also tangled with romance and passion, which Viv actually is supposed to be focusing entirely at her work relationship, where the radio drama says she's madly in love. Yep, it's complicated.

When her best friend Imogene casts doubt on Vivian's agonizing, it's tempting to call off the hunt and go out for a holiday hot chocolate instead.
Vivian frowned. She knew Imogene was right. Nothing she found in that drawer could possibly have any bearing on the present day. Still, something pricked at her conscience. Something about that envelope of money was wrong. The fact that her father had hidden the key to his own desk drawer was wrong.
Even worse, though, are the doubts that Charlie shares about Vivian's dad -- and soon she's in much hotter water, dreading a possible connection to the past crimes of Al Capone himself ... and whoever is running his operations now.

Every page of this madcap mystery has a fresh twist, and the frank urgency of Vivian's passion for Charlie adds a lively spice to the action. I had a ball reading the book -- even though I dread thinking of those Big Holidays cruising toward us already!

Well, if we can make the best of New Year's Eve the way Vivian finally does ... let's jazz it up! (Oh, you won't need to read the two titles in order. Set aside a shelf for the series, though, because I bet it will keep on rolling with great success.)

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

New Texas Ranger Mystery Series from J M Gulvin, THE LONG COUNT

US cover
The name J M Gulvin won't be familiar even to readers of this British/American author's long series of previous books, because it's a new pen name -- earlier titles came out from "Jeff Gulvin" and the pseudonym "Adam Armstrong."

Hard to say whether this newest nom de plume is intended to sound like Texas. In fact, the toughest part about THE LONG COUNT, a debut in a Texas Ranger series, is that almost nothing in the book "sounds like" the Lone Star State. And for a region with such distinctive language, that's quite a drawback in a novel set there.

On the other hand, there's plenty of Southern in the book, where Ranger John Quarrie (careful, don't confuse this with Quarry, a creation of Max Allan Collins) is struggling to keep up with the work load during student protests during the Vietnam War. Quarrie's tangled connection with a recently returned Nam veteran, Isaac Bowen, takes him dashing along back roads and sometimes all the way past the Texas border to Louisiana. What's the story behind Isaac's father's death -- and is it suicide (which John Quarrie doubts) or murder? Where is Isaac's missing brother Ishmael? Why do the members of this devastated family have ties to a high-security asylum for the criminally insane?

It took me a while to get into THE LONG COUNT because of the lack of Texas feel to it. But I finally found Quarrie -- or John Q, as he is also known -- such an interesting detective that I fell into the story after all. Quarrie's friendships and unusual extended family, including his young son, are especially intriguing. So is the rich language with which Gulvin piles details into the scenes:
Quarrie approached the house along the overgrown footpath with a flashlight the chief had retrieved from the truck. The stoop was cut from rough-looking wood and two of the steps were rotten, the edges turned to mush. He picked up a scraping of mud that seemed to have been deposited at an odd angle. Coasting the beam from the flashlight across the grass he saw where it was flattened in places and that was not due to the rain. Moving away from the stoop he looked more deeply and shone the torch on the turned earth under the window.
You can see from that sample that Gulvin's Britishisms haven't been fully pruned out. It makes for some odd descriptions, with a bit of a strange rhythm to the prose. But the plot twists are smart and dark, and the book is still a good read.

Besides, I love getting in on the first book of a series -- it's exciting to wonder how the author will grow with the characters in the titles yet to come!

THE LONG COUNT -- the title refers in one sense to going underwater and holding your breath -- is brought to American readers by Faber and Faber, and comes recommended by the magnificent Ann Cleeves. Keep your expectations modest, and enjoy the ride.

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

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Brief Mention: THE FURY, John Farris, Classic Crime and Horror Fiction Re-Released by Chicago Review Press

Film buffs may be far more familiar than I was with THE FURY, released in the horror genre in 1978 (a Brian De Palma film). The recent release of this book in softcover by the independent Chicago Review Press gives an exciting way to see the original book and how John Farris, known for his contemporary horror, handled the plot some 40 years ago.

Today's fiction has surged past the premise of THE FURY in many ways -- it's not at all surprising to find that a CIA agent (Peter Sandza) needs to seek out his government-kidnapped exceptional son Robin. And the paired plot line with a mega-wealthy family's daughter, Gillian Bellaver, sharing some of Robin's unusual psychic gifts (and perhaps a psychic bond?) is not unusual, either.

But without the frills and imagery of the silver screen, it's fascinating to watch the author lay out these two young lives as the ordinary and familiar unravels. I didn't find it as chilling as the film surely was in 1978. But I couldn't put it down, either. And seeing the book as prelude to today's masters of the paranormal crime mystery (like John Connolly) is irresistible.

For insight into how the horror genre developed and for a fascinating look at the written precursor to the noted film, THE FURY is well worth picking up and ... dare I say, enjoying? (Oh, don't let the rather basic cover deter you. It's irrelevant to the work.)

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

Crime-Solving in the Korean DMZ (and Beyond) for Sueño and Bascom in THE NINE-TAILED FOX, Martin Limón

Soho Crime continues to bring remarkable international crime fiction to American readers -- and one of most enjoyable of the current series is the one from former military pro Martin Limón. Limón writes from his decade spent in Korea, with the complex mixture of love and despair that a friend of this small-but-fierce nation can easily develop. And his investigators from the US Army's military police in the 1970s, sergeants Ernie Bascom and George Sueño, operate from that same complicated standpoint: wanting to make things work out well for the Koreans around them who are so often misunderstood by the American forces, and pressed to a timeline of "solve this and get back to base" -- while also resisting the dangerous partnership with the Korean National Police that they've entered over the past few titles in the series.

There are already a dozen books before this just-released title, THE NINE-TAILED FOX, and I'm such a fan of these well-written crime novels that I suggest reading them all. But you don't need to have followed the series before plunging into this one. For one thing, Limón is a strong author who engages readers in both character and plot twists, without depending on prior knowledge; for another, it appears from the slightly uneven "explaininess" of the first few chapters that someone decided to make sure there were extra paragraphs to bring people into the situation. After all, Army life isn't simple, and neither was the Korean assistance in the 1970s, a presence by American forces that the Asian nation desired in order to hold back the Chinese, but also in some senses an Occupation operating from a narrow set of prejudices and military logic.

This time, George and Ernie -- the only ones on their base who seem able to navigate the streets of Seoul successfully -- are thrust into investigating three missing servicemen, in three different locations. The pressure's nonstop, from their superior officers (solve it, clean it up), from the Korean officer they've nicknamed "Mr. Kill" who's going to take things into his own hands soon, and of course from the sense of obligation these investigators feel when they witness murder and the associated local pressures of organized crime and prostitution.

The title refers to a Korean fairy tale of a sexually devouring woman called "the nine-tailed fox" -- or in Korean, the gumiho, a term that the investigators first hear described by others as a "gummy whore." (Their on-base informant, an eccentric pervert they've nicknamed "Strange," is quickly obsessed with this archetypal figure!) She appears to have lured each of the three missing men in some way, in order to kidnap them. But why? There are no ransom demands, no action that makes sense in American terms. Or Korean!

By the time Sueño and Bascom -- with dangerous assistance from Mr. Kill -- sort out what's really going on, they're in too deep to back out. But also too deep to keep themselves safe.

Let the awkward first few pages slide by, and follow the chase into the complicated crime and highly specific Korean negotiations that follow. This is a great page-turner, and at the same time a classic military-based mystery, packed with action and intrigue.

Oh yes, do get the rest of the series as soon as you can. I've rarely found a series with such diverse plots. And having a small taste of Korean culture in the past, I find the setting and motivations in Limón's books addicting, and the plots highly readable. Thanks to Soho Crime as well as the author, for keeping this one rolling.

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

Long Effects of Evil in BLOCK 46, Johana Gustawsson

US cover
Sometimes the movement of a good (or great) crime novel from Europe to the United States takes a while. Then again, some of them never come across the ocean. Still, the three-year transit for BLOCK 46 from French crime writer Johana Gustawsson was too long a wait for such a blockbuster of a novel.

UK cover
Like the generation-long effects of abuse and murder in the Irish "Troubles" so hauntingly portrayed by Stuart Neville, Gustawsson's terrain of Nazi terror creates people and events steeped in evil. But this author doesn't simplify in any sense -- while the serial killer in BLOCK 46 seems to reenact some trauma of Buchenwald's killings, the novel is told from three voices: his, and those of two women.

Emily Roy, a top-tier Canadian criminal profiler who works for the British police force, demands detailed support services and instant access to crime scenes and information. Considering that she's working on a killer who has already piled up three bodies in two nations when the book begins, she needs every crumb of information and insight possible.

Alexis Castells, a close friend of the first adult that the serial killer tackles, can't walk away from the murder of jewelry designer Linnéa, who at first is the lone victim in Sweden. Haunted by an earlier crime she's been unable to finalize emotionally, Alexis determines to tag along with Emily -- who, surprisingly, allows her into the pursuit process.

The book's three-voice construction is brilliantly balanced by Gustawsson. Her details of torment at Buchenwald -- the "camp" where her own grandfather suffered -- are acute and perceptive, but also rapidly exchanged for the more civilized scenes in London and Sweden as the investigation takes place. As reader, I found myself eager to return to Emily and Alexis and the assorted police officers they're teamed with. And yet after a few pages in their company, I was also ready to look again at the cold, bitter, twisted landscape and events in the concentration camp, wanting to know how (or whether) Erich Ebler, a medical student imprisoned and debased in the camp, was surviving.

BLOCK 46 was a huge hit in Europe; the author's website exposes interviews and background that fascinate almost as much as the book. Like this:
These places define me as a woman and writer: I'm not only Marseillaise and French, but I am also a Londoner and an aspiring Swede! I arrived in London in 2009, after seven years in Paris. At the time, I was a journalist, freelancing for French magazines. I immediately felt at home in this city of various villages steeped in history, great parks and ancient pubs, all mixed with a cosmopolitan culture that inspires you. Hampstead is my favourite part of town. It is truly a haven that feels just like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. As for Sweden, it was my husband who brought the Scandinavian influence to our family. He introduced me to the rough beauty of the west coast, the Nordic folklore and the divine  chokladbollar !
Well done, Orenda Books, in bringing this debut crime novel across "the Pond." I will be watching for the next installment.

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

Sunday, October 01, 2017

New Thriller from Paul E. Hardisty, RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD

The third in Paul E. Hardisty's Claymore ("Clay") Straker series, RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD, is now available, and it's a double whammy of a book: a South African soldier thriller set in the gory battles of 1971, coupled with Clay's 1996 effort to clean up his past by testifying to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Both carry their own freight of terror -- and appalling risk.

Deepening the plot are Clay's deep and desperate love affairs -- one that builds during his efforts to untangle the corruption and possible biowarfare experiments during 1971 (at what point should loyalty to brother officers be tested against moral and ethical horror?), and another that continues in 1996 in his effort to merit the love of a woman we've met with him in the two preceding books in the series, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, which was short-listed for the 2015 John Creasey "New Blood" dagger from the Crime Writers Association (CWA), and The Evolution of Fear.

RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD -- and how can one read the title without also hearing an echo of "Requiem for the Dead"? -- can be read without the preceding books. In fact, its attachments to them barely affect this newest book, except for reinforcing Clay's motivation to give his testimony. The new title is a compulsive page-turner. Clay's earliest experiences of doubt toward the men he fights with -- his brothers in war, and the officer who in most ways is his father -- build ferociously through firefights and danger. The occasional glimpses of his future, layered into the story, give the reader confidence that in some form, Clay will survive. But the degree to which he'll compromise his integrity is in doubt at all moments, as he finds himself caught up in brutal experiments that reflect especially the racism of his country and his time.

I mostly raced through the book, eager to discover how Clay would confront his present and past, and to explore the dangerous terrain (human and geographic) of this thriller. Somehow, though, the whole time, I thought the biowarfare aspect would turn out to be fictional. So there was added shock and horror to learn in the author note that Hardisty based Clay's quandary on a real episode in the machinations of the South African apartheid government in 1981. Guess it just goes to show that truth can indeed be as dreadful and terrifying as fiction ...

Lee Child readers, espionage fans, and those savoring the new opportunities of this decade to enjoy global crime fiction will appreciate RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD. I expect to read it again, for the pleasure of this skilled author's layered plotting that tests the human heart and soul along with the capacity to navigate a battlefield and a crime. Highly recommended -- but leave time for this one, because it's worth savoring. And the powerfully drawn scenes and conflicts linger in my mind. Perhaps they will in yours, too.

All three titles are from Orenda Books.

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