Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Crime Fiction Debut from Martin Jay Weiss, THE SECOND SON

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]


A debut thriller is always an adventure—has the author been secretly practicing the craft of tight, suspenseful writing, so that the plot will make sense, the pace will force the pages to turn, and the characters will be memorable? Or will there be small gaps in means and motive and opportunity, or flaws in dialogue, or accidental mismatches?

Fortunately, Martin Jay Weiss is far from the usual debut author. Under the name Marty Weiss, he’s already an accomplished filmmaker and director, producing award-winning commercials. Translation: He can set a scene swiftly, raise the ante, and make it work.

So Rare Bird Books didn’t just snatch up his debut—this independent California press grabbed both THE SECOND SON for this season, and Flamingo Coast (not a sequel) for next year. That’s great news.

Start with the risky and exhilarating business of a California tech entrepreneur. “Stalker,” owned by brothers Ethan and Jack Stone, isn’t quite ready to go fully public. Its facial recognition software still has glitches. But the pressure from their CFO (chief financial officer), Bailey Duff, keeps escalating. There’s not much the brothers can do to rein that pressure in, since it’s coming from an anonymous financial “angel” who refuses to give the team its next dose of funds unless Stalker launches immediately.

So the tradition of “first death, first chapter” in many a thriller becomes, instead, a premature birth of an app. At the same time, Ethan Stone’s life decomposes in a matter of hours, as his brother Jack, who’s his twin, announces an immediate departure to go work for the competition. The two have never been significantly apart. How can this happen?

And when Ethan gets home, the other intimate part of his life turns upside down, because his live-together-girlfriend, his beloved Brooke, has left him at the same time. How can this happen? Have his brother and his heart’s desire somehow bonded in a way that’s stolen them both from his life? Will his venture-capital-funded tech firm collapse, as his private life explodes?

 Even so, Ethan’s awareness of what’s really going on hasn’t really started. What’s the real connection that Brooke has with her own business, the Dancing Rabbit retreat house in Big Sur? Why do people disappear there? If Ethan’s own business is about people finding each other via new search modes, could Brooke’s business somehow be doing the opposite? And, as mysterious as all the rest, how could the firm’s competitor, Hounddog, have recruited Ethan’s twin out of his life?

When Ethan decides to undertake his own search for both Jack and Brooke, he stumbles into evidence of a pair of deaths near the retreat house, and suddenly he’s interfering with the police:
 Ethan took a few steps forward and tried to explain, ‘I haven’t been able to get through to them on the phone and I just want to make sure—‘

‘This is an investigation, sir. I need you to get back to your vehicle.’

The officer didn’t want to leave his post but was getting irritated. Ethan knew the officer wouldn’t let him through, so he waved, as if thanking the officer for permission, and headed for the crushed metal barrier opening.

The officer shouted, ‘Don’t even think about it!’

By the time the officer waited for a passing car, Ethan had already disappeared into the pitch-black muddy slope. The officer grabbed his walkie-talkie and warned the officers below. ‘Civilian approaching!’

Another voice echoed a complaint, but it was too late. Ethan was upon them.”

Haunting the rest of the action and the secrets that Ethan’s got to uncover is something Brooke told him before she vanished: “Birth order and birthrights shouldn’t matter, but they always do.”
Even between twins?

The pace is tight, even though the writing shows an early-career tendency to “tell” more than “show,” making the book a little too wordy. But there’s enough adventure in here to promise a heady career for the author. A parallel could be Paul E. Hardisty’s books, which began a little too “loose” and turned into the powerful Claymore Straker series, increasingly tight and challenging. Espionage from Karen Robards has the same feel.

Granted, Martin Jay Weiss has some distance to go, but he’s already worth reading. And here’s the other excitement of a debut thriller: spotting the ones where the author’s rapid growth will make that first book into a treasure. THE SECOND SON offers exactly that promise. (Published by Rare Bird Books)

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

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Chasing Crime in Laos with Dr. Siri Paiboun, #13, DON'T EAT ME, Colin Cotterill

Dr. Siri Paiboun has retired from his Party-required position as national coroner of Laos (1980s style). That gives him plenty of time to spend with his wife, Madame Daeng, assisting at her noodle shop -- except somehow he's pretty often away on adventures instead. As DON'T EAT ME (number 13 in this highly entertaining international caper series) opens, Dr. Siri and his good friend Civilai -- Comrade Civilai, that is -- have smuggled a large, bulky item home on a raft. And the next morning brings them a regrettable visit from their friend Inspector Phosy, who has not retired and therefore needs to confront them with presumably smuggling a weapon into the People's Democratic Republic of Laos.

The good part is, it's not a weapon -- it's an enormous electrical movie camera, for the friends' ambitious notion to create a Laotian version of War and Peace on screen. Starring, of course, handsome young men like themselves (okay, like they Once Were).
A year earlier there had been an incident that resulted in the old boys coming into possession of some drug money. Quite a sum in fact. Siri had invested much of his in charitable acts while Civilai had smuggled in some delicious but rather expensive wines, a new lounge suite and a car -- not new but classic. Yet still they had not completely used up their ill-gotten gains. In fact they had enough not only to buy the camera, but also, with a little budget tweaking, to produce a modest film of tehir own. ... They removed the camera and wrapped it in an old parachute canopy. Getting it to the Lao side would be Siri's problem. ...

"How do we develop the film?" Civilai asked.

Siri laughed.

"Old Brother," he said, "on the eve of the race does the marathon runner worry about what drinks will be available at the winner's reception party? No. He takes one step at a time."
Once Phosy realizes he doesn't have to arrest his buddies, everyone relaxes. Which in turn leaves time to comtemplate the challenges for their plan: No power to run the machine. No operating manual. An interfering sort of local bureaucracy that's likely to rewrite the script for its own members, if it gives a shooting permit at all. And, oh yes, complications in the family circle, related to Mr. Geung.

Readers of the series will leap at the notion of hearing more about Mr. Geung's life, especially his planned marriage (!). If you haven't read any of the earlier books, be warned: You need to abandon disbelief, go with the flow, and let Dr. Siri and Mr. Geung demonstrate the fine points of the Laotian spirit world, where each of them keeps connecting.

But there's more to DON'T EAT ME than the madcap adventures of these rebels! There is, of course, a crime ... perhaps two or three? ... a skeleton (not yet bare) ... a criminal enterprise involving animal smuggling ... and conflict with the "real" bureaucracy.

Cotterill's passion for clever and unexpected twists that show the Party at its manipulative worst (and of course Dr. Siri fumbling his way toward a solution that his friends will help implement) takes the plot to drastic extremes this time. It felt like a lot of chapters spent wondering whether the team would ever be able to restore its usual lives -- and feeling highly anxious about missing family members!

Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri books are always a delight. DON'T EAT ME may be one of the most memorable in the series. And it's almost sure to send you back to the earlier titles, whether for the first time or the third (or more). Good fun, and a great summer read, from Soho Crime (an imprint of Soho Press).

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

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Debut British Police Thriller from Max Manning, DON'T LOOK NOW

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]



What are the keys to a serial killer crime novel well worth reading? Max Manning, a seasoned British journalist who’s covered crime and more for London’s big newspapers, crafts a modern “Jack the Ripper” in Don’t Look Now and takes readers along with the killer on a journey of multiple killings. But in spite of direct glimpses of this nightmare’s thinking process, there’s no expectation of liking or even fully understanding the criminal here. Instead, Manning binds readers to the very different lives of two men who will risk losing everything, for the sake of ending this crime spree.

One is Detective Chief Inspector Dan Fenton, who’s caught in a political net that won’t give him time to solve the crime, as the newspapers ramp up their pressure on his officers, on him, on New Scotland Yard. Suddenly a single parent, with a school-age daughter and a huge grieving hole blasted by his wife’s death from cancer, Fenton still needs to work overtime, maybe double, to clear the case that keeps growing with each new death. Yet each time he breaks a promise to be home “soon” for his daughter or their new live-in nanny, he’s tormented. Yes, that kind of person, the kind who really cares about respect for others, kindness, obligations. How on earth can that kind of person survive a police bureaucracy?

Then there’s Adam Blake. At first, we only know he’s taking really hard the first murder. It’s the woman who’d been his girlfriend until a few weeks before, when she’d given up on him, especially his unwillingness (as she saw it) to get help for the frozen parts of his soul, massive remnants of an inner and outer wound that wasn’t his fault. But isn’t healing. It’s clear his friend Lauren Bishop was a random choice for the killer. Is there some reason Blake should turn back toward the broken relationship now, after this murder, and help seek the killer?

Those are the factors that Manning handles with enormous skill: keeping the suspense and danger frighteningly intense, while murders pile up and Fenton takes a public shaming for being unable to stop them, Blake struggles to function within “civilization” after his exiling, and pain shows itself in even the smallest gestures. Fenton is rubbing his eyes red; Blake might as well be sweating tears, as he chases a hacker who might be able to help.

And that’s where the “modern” aspect of this serial killing plays out. The killer—readers know him only as @IKiller, from his Instagram account and other social media plays—has the same craving for public fame that the Ripper probably shared. But he’s tackling it through the most modern processes of publicizing cellphone photos of his victims before and after killing. London’s terrorized by the literal faces of terror and death. And by a disgusting fascination that emerges in the seams of the city.
Blake took a couple of deep breaths. … ‘It’s down to human nature, I suppose,’ he said. ‘We’ve all got darkness somewhere inside.’

‘You really believe that?’

‘Why do you think drivers slow down to rubberneck at car crashes? Why are we fascinated by horror movies, TV coverage of disasters? Don’t ask me to explain it, because I can’t. The ghouls following the killer disgust me as much as they do you. It just doesn’t shock me as much.’ 
Dark and focused on three men’s choices—those of Blake, Fenton, and the killer—Don’t Look Now uses the women in this story (the deceased girlfriend; her surviving sister; Fenton’s daughter) as measures of how much the crime solvers care. When their lives fall apart, will they be of any use to each other in stopping the killing?

Closer to a Jeffery Deaver manhunt emotionally, than to the Nordic noir, Manning’s debut crime novel is a keeper. (Published by Sourcebooks Landmark.)
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Eric Rickstad's New Crime Fiction (Vermont Suspense & Gothic) WHAT REMAINS OF HER

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]


Young professor Jonah Baum teaches transcendental poetry and Gothic literature at a small Vermont college. But nothing in his profession could prepare him for the November 1987 afternoon when, faced with an empty home and missing wife and daughter, he’d step into a horror narrative of his own.

With plenty of reason, and Jonah’s own doubts and confusion buttressing their assumptions, the police almost immediately began grilling him as the possible reason his family is missing. Did he chase them away? Or did he do something horrible to them? His alcohol-soggy mind can’t be fully certain of what’s going on and what he’s done.

Desperate for reassurance, and of course for his family, Jonah calls his best friend Maurice Welch, a local sheriff, for help finding Rebecca and Sally. To his shock, Maurice sees him as a possible suspect, keeps grilling him, pushing at details that Jonah’s twisted a bit to not look like what he really is—a man who’s afraid of his own incapacity, afraid of being left, afraid of any moment without the cushion of a drink and a white lie.

Those who’ve read Rickstad’s earlier books (Lie in Wait, The Silent Girls) know there will be darkness ahead. Some of it comes directly from Jonah’s weak-minded efforts to hide his inner culpability; some of it’s from Maurice’s determination to push, despite their friendship. And some of it is the dark, bloody illness of abuse and possible death pounding at the scene, forceful as a New England winter storm:
‘I hunted as a kid.’ Jonah nodded to Maurice. ‘He can attest to that.’

Maurice nodded, face grim.

‘And you just decided to take it up again on a whim?’ the detective said.

‘I don’t do much on whims,’ Jonah said.

‘Hmmm,’ the detective said.

Jonah’s every word, every action, seemed a mark against him. All of it suspicious. One of a thousand cuts. ‘I felt that old urge, and, frankly, free meat in the freezer never hurts with the cost of groceries these days.’

‘So you have money troubles?’

‘I wouldn’t say that.’

The detective scribbled a note. ‘And the head wound?’ He tapped his pen against his own forehead.

‘As I told Maurice, I got up too fast, lost my balance, and hit my head.’

‘And the dented wall in your daughter’s bedroom?’
 All the small things of life in an imperfect marriage, a restless career, line up to condemn Jonah. Maurice is unable to help—he’s there as the law more than as a best friend, it seems.

The real truth of what’s happened to Rebecca and Sally won’t be simple to find. WHAT REMAINS OF HER jumps forward into the adult life of little Sally’s used-to-be best friend, Lucinda Welch, the sheriff’s daughter. The small girls hadn’t understood much about their often scary world at the time of Sally’s disappearance, and Lucinda’s carrying a haunted burden of knowledge she couldn’t understand as a child, but recognized as full of threat.

Despite Rickstad’s reliance on ghostly tremors of unspoken, unrecognized evidence, this crime novel’s shattering conclusion arrives relentlessly and depends squarely on the reality of the long-lived circle of friends. Tightly plotted, jammed with frightening scenes of threat and loss, the book may haunt readers especially with the possibilities that what happens here might transfer to real life.

Which is, of course, the whole point of Gothic horror, embedded in crime fiction: to remind us of the fear and evil we half are drawn toward, half turn away from. Rickstad’s balance of this dark side with the counterpoint of courage and determination brought by now-adult Lucinda declares that truth may emerge, justice be measured out. Maybe.

Even this slim chance of righting the balance makes WHAT REMAINS OF HER a fiercely good read. Add it to the shelf of noir, along with Karin Fossum’s Scandinavian crime fiction, Stuart Neville’s violence-haunted Irish families, and Karin Slaughter’s twists on law enforcement and pursuit.

As always, for Rickstad’s Vermont books, don’t count on the geography matching the real Green Mountain state. Thank goodness, the crime’s won’t match, either—at least, not for today.

(Published by William Morrow.)

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

New Key West "Foodie" Mystery, DEATH ON THE MENU, Lucy Burdette

Wouldn't you love to be a food critic? Talk about not counting the calories, for a good reason! Hayley Snow putters around Key West, that southern Florida island haven, on her motorbike and checks out the latest restaurants, food carts, and other delights as part of her reporting job at Key Zest magazine. In DEATH ON THE MENU, number 8 in the delicious series from Lucy Burdette (aka Roberta Isleib), Hayley's job and her mother's catering business overlap, since both send her into tasting and writing about traditional Cuban food. (Yummy recipes at the back of the book include a Mojito Cake. Really!)

That's the good news -- that the food she's preparing, serving, and tasting (my stomach growled most of the way through this mystery) is doubling up for helping her mom and keeping her job at the magazine. Readers of earlier books in the series know Hayley's job hasn't always been secure, especially when her dating life and her boss coincided. But now she's head over heels in love with the right man for her, Nathan, who's also a police detective. Of course, friction ramps up when Nathan asks her to back off from the Hemingway Key-West-and-Cuba conference where her mom is catering. A "negative event" is part of the information Nathan has, and he wants Hayley safe.

But that's never been her key passion. Instead, she goes for loyalty to family and friends, which in this case directly counters that request. Gulp. Other stresses include how her adorable elderly roommate Miss Gloria would manage on their houseboat if Hayley ever gets married and leaves it ... her mom's business survival ... and of course the effects of the conference.

In the spirit of a traditional "amateur sleuth" mystery, there's soon a death on the catering crew. It's the brother of Cuban-born catering worker Maria, and soon Hayley's drawn into her own investigation, since the police have few clues and seem likely to blame the Cuban community for its own losses -- in this case, Maria's afraid her murdered brother Gabriel would be accused of a Hemingway-related theft at the historic "Truman Little White House":
"Why in the world do they think he was responsible for the theft?" I asked her. She bit her lip and shook her head. "If you want me to help, I have to know the truth. Is there any chance that he took it?" ...

"Please, please," Maria moaned as I started to walk away. "Closure is the only thing that might help my mother right now. It's not right that a mother's son should go first. It's not bearable.

I could only nod in agreement. I also wondered again how in the world the missing gold medal fit into his death.
Hayley's heart and mind both push her into committing to find the killer. Which will, in turn, put another of Gabriel's relatives at risk -- and then Hayley herself.

Tightly plotted, with plenty of island-style red herrings and mouth-watering food-prep descriptions, DEATH ON THE MENU is also full of friends helping friends, and the sweetness of love. I had a great time reading it, and I dream of the weekend when I'll be testing some of the recipes for the traditional delights that Hayley and her mom present along the way.

No need to read the preceding books in the series before plunging into this one -- double back to them later. DEATH ON THE MENU is a great choice for the summer reading stack, lively and evocative with plenty of action. And if I add that Jimmy Buffet makes a cameo appearance, I'm sure you'll nod in appreciation -- but you'll never guess the other celebrity guest until you turn the page and gasp. Have fun!

[Crooked Lane Books, July 31 publication date.]

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Summer Mystery, Clever and Cute Debut, LIVE AND LET CHAI by Bree Baker

Two cover images for this new mystery.

Debut author Bree Baker set up her dandy summer mystery, LIVE AND LET CHAI, with plenty of secrets to explore! Everly Swan's return to her seaside hometown of Charm (off the North Carolina coast, but way more rustic than Hilton Head) looks like a new chapter in her life, which just had a rough patch with a collapsed relationship. Here she is, though, in her own home at the beach, with enough room to open up the sweet tea and lunch shop she's dreamed of, and her doting aunts (who raised her) close enough to give her a hand; oh, but what's the story on her own parents, and the Swan family curse? Hold that thought.

Before she's even reached her grand opening, she's got trouble -- an elderly town council member who's tried to block her business is murdered and there's no doubt the poison reached him via a take-out glass of Everly's own peach tea. Rumors run rampant, and customers not only won't come indulge, they're downright hostile. So, initially, is the town's new police officer, whose hunky body and wounded heart appeal to Everly -- but not so much, while he's questioning her:
"I'd like a list of anyone else who you believe might have a reason to harm Mr. Paine."

"Anyone else? Like, besides me?" I scoffed. "I just told you I couldn't have killed Mr. Paine. It's illogical and mean."

"And you're always what?" he asked. "Reasonable and kind?"

"I try to be," I admitted. Though buying a fixer-upper home on a whim and arguing with an old man didn't support either notion. ....

Eventually, I turned to the notepad and began to recount the events of my evening, logging them as neatly as I could with shaking hands, the memories as vivid and visceral as if I were reliving each awful one.
It's soon clear that the only way Everly can retrieve her business, her role in the community, and even her own safety will be to speed up the discovery of the real criminal. Of course, that means interfering in police business a bit. And rubbing some people the wrong way. Sigh. Thank goodness, she'd got supportive friends and family, because things will be tough until the murderer comes to justice.

No signs here that Baker, who lives in the Midwest, is a novice -- this is a tightly paced, well put together mystery with just the right balance of suspense and sweet tea. Although it's a an amateur sleuth mystery in the cozy area, the possibility of romance never distracts from the clues and their pursuit, and Everly is a plucky and smart young woman determined to do whatever it takes to put her life back together. Even if that means she'll have to reveal a little of her own past disappointments, not to mention her family's so-called curse -- all of which looks full of material for future books in this "Seaside Café Mystery" series.

From Sourcebooks, new for July and perfect for the summer reading stack. By the way, the author's already a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Romance Writers of America, good confirmation for her own determination and her mystery skills!

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

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Betrayal and Pain (and Crime) Between Friends, HER PRETTY FACE by Robyn Harding

Sharp, insightful, and edgy, HER PRETTY FACE from Robyn Harding takes this author, already known for her women's fiction, into crime from a new angle: What happens to the people who survive a terrible assault and who've had a role in it -- but aren't kept in prison forever? Could one of them turn up in your life, like the dark side of a WITSEC twist?

It's easy to sympathize with Frances Metcalfe. Other than her rock-solid marriage, her life is loaded with problems: a son with emotional issues who's having trouble surfing the nasty currents of an upscale private school, her own inability to look like a mom at that kind of school should, and feeling the sting of cliques -- not just for herself but for her much-loved and rather naive son.

So it looks like an amazing gift in Frances's life when gorgeous, wealthy, and, let's face it, sexy Kate Randolph steps forward to defend her, and her son. Not only is Kate willing to stand up for them, she's happy to be a real friend for Frances, the kind who wants to go out for lunch, have a couples night with a kids' sleepover, and more.

But as Harding unfolds the story of the two women and their families, she also provides peeks into a long-ago crime, one that featured abuse and murder, and we're reading the words of someone not quite identified, who's linked to that crime. What's the connection to Kate and Frances? As it all unfolds, the tension ramps high, providing an intense page-turner.

My lone quibble with HER PRETTY FACE is the person who pays the highest price as the plot spirals -- Harding's choice detracts from the painful darkness that a book like this one usually evokes. Then again, for many readers, that will be a plus: not having to cover your eyes or double check that the door is locked, or weep for someone's irreversible damage. But it comes close ... and it's not until the final twists that any assurance can come from this tangle of secrets and suspense.

From Scout Press, a Simon & Schuster imprint. Release date July 10.

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

New in John Straley's Great Alaskan Crime Fiction Series, BABY'S FIRST FELONY -- and More


It's always great when a new Cecil Younger investigation comes out from Alaskan author John Straley -- the series has been one of the slower type, without the annual push to publish that many others have. No problem: Each one's been worth the wait, and BABY'S FIRST FELONY is a great summer read. Plus, there's more exciting news -- see the end paragraphs for details.

First, what's Cecil Younger up to? He's a criminal defense investigator, and a big part of his job is coaching clueless felons on how to behave in and around court (like, Don't come to court in shoes you stole ... really ... see a lively Straley interview here). Let's quickly add that not all the criminals are totally stupid; plenty are smart enough to make a profit somehow from their crimes. But as Straley advises, "Reality is always, always more complicated than our ability to plan for it."

And that's the situation for Cecil Younger as this book opens -- a habitual offender already known to him turns up as a client again, and when Sherrie asks him to track down the evidence she's sure will get her through court and out of jail, Cecil of course agrees. The complication is, once he starts poking into the drug and prostitution stuff where Sherrie's been hanging, he finds his own teenage daughter, naive and rebellious, showing up in the same house. Getting her home again takes all he's got (although he picks up the evidence along the way). But his daughter's now a known lever to use against him, and when she gets kidnapped, he's facing major pressure to commit crimes himself -- not just the kind on paper that most anyone might -- and even so, his daughter's life and his marriage are majorly at risk. Here's his wife confronting him:
"Our daughter is missing. You disappear and give me no information where you f*ing disapper to, and then you turn up drunk? Unbelievable. ... The police won't answer my calls. Her friends are frantically trying to find her. Todd is walking around town and just calling her name as if she were a lost dog ... and where the hell are you?" Jane Marie's voice was leaden and accusatory.

"I'm going to a card game to get her back," I said ... or at least I think I said. What was certain was Jane Marie threw a dry shirt at me and held out a clean denim jacket. She jammed some loose bills into the jacket pocket and started punching me.

"Get out of my house." She was shrill now. "Get out and don't come back. Go."

I may have fallen down the staircase because I was bleeding when I veered out into Katlian Street in the rain.
Cecil's got a lot more pain in front of him, and more disastrous choices -- all of which he's pretty much forced into. (See whether you can figure any way he could have avoided them.)

Straley admits he pushed the plot to display a wide range of disasters that come from breaking your own hard-learned rules for life. He should know -- he's now retired from nearly 30 years as a criminal defense investigator himself. I sure do hope that means there will be more books from him, a tad more often. But I'll wait as long as necessary.


Now, the big good news as a plus to all this: Soho Crime (imprint of Soho Press) just brought out softcover versions of four earlier Cecil Younger investigations! Pester your local bookseller to stock them all (tell them to go directly to Paul Oliver, a VP at the press, e-mail poliver@sohopress.com). Summer reading stack? If you can stretch them out some, you might get all the way into autumn.

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



Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Brief Note, THE TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF THE TRAITOR GEORGE WASHINGTON, by Charles Rosenberg

Legal thriller author Charles Rosenberg steps away from the American courtroom in his new release, THE TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF THE TRAITOR GEORGE WASHINGTON. As the title reveals, this one is an "alternate history" of what might happen if General Washington were kidnapped by the British as the height of the American Revolution. Would liberty still prevail? And how would the British twist the reasoning to try their captive with a death penalty ahead?

Mystery readers may get frustrated with a plot that doesn't provide many unexpected twists, beyond the kidnapping caper itself, a rather grim expedition in rough terrain (but featuring one of my favorite "Washington Slept Here" locations, the Dey Mansion in Wayne, NJ). History and historical fiction buffs will note the blurbs from Steve Berry, Max Byrd, and John Jakes, and take the plunge. Don't expect period language, but Rosenberg does a meticulous job presenting the military efforts of the era, and his notion of "what could have happened" is a pleasant read. New from Hanover Square Press, which is diversifying its list boldly this year!

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

San Juan Islands Mystery #2, AGAINST THE UNDERTOW, Bethany Maines

Bethany Maines admits she cares a lot about the entertainment tucked into the mysteries she writes -- she weaves clever grins into her plots as easily as the suspense. In the second book of her San Juan Islands Murder Mystery series, AGAINST THE UNDERTOW, displaced actress Tish (never Patricia!) Yearly hopes to get her wedding venue established at last, so she can start earning some money. Jobs on the rainy islands off the coast of Washington State are scarce and don't pay terribly well. But she's scraped up just enough funding to create a professional kitchen in a small house with  gorgeous surroundings, and why shouldn't it work out?

Well, one thing making it tough is Tish's role as junior partner (a way of making her caregiving more acceptable) to her aging grandfather Tobias Yearly, an ex-CIA agent determined to turn Tish and himself into official private investigators. Of course at his age, he's not exactly "up" on all the technology that "snoops" now use -- good thing Tish can handle that end. Meanwhile he's prudently made up business cards that should do for both of them: T. Yearly, plus Tish's cell number.

I chuckled my way through the first book in this series, An Unseen Current -- well, to be honest, I chortled and belly-laughed enough to disturb my spouse's TV watching -- and Maines's earlier series, the Carrie Mae espionage adventures, were also side-splitting. So the mild chaos at the opening of AGAINST THE UNDERTOW seemed promising to me: Tish's not-quite-boyfriend (she's officially seeing someone else, but the chemistry can't be mistaken), Sheriff's Deputy Emmett Nash, needs a quick escape and alibi from accusation of murder, and the next thing you know, Tish is quietly letting her grandfather know she's got the deputy tucked into the trunk of their car, as they exit the ferry, the main route to the islands.

Count on quick twists, as Tish's BFF from the mainland arrives in "cute" overalls to help with the rehab, and a mess of messed-up hippies turns threatening (yep, plenty of gasps of amusement in there), while Tish is trying to take crime-solving seriously for the sake of Deputy Nash (and so she can get back to her construction work). She tells her feisty grandpa that she's concerned:
"I feel like we should be further along in solving Tyler's murder. Or have more suspects. Or something."

"It's the suspects that trouble me," said Tobias leaning back. "I'm not saying women can't kill -- they're perfectly capable. I just don't particularly see these ones doing it."

"Well, apparently anyone can be a killer," said Tish. "If Detective Spring is to be believed."

"No, not really," said Tobias. "What he means is that evil people can be perfectly normal. You know why the rate of PTSD went up so much in Vietnam?"

"Clearer reporting, destigmatization, and a better understanding of the problem?"

"Thank you, Miss Social Sciences. No. Well, probably those had an effect. But also, there was better training. They trained soldiers to shoot a human targets, made it more instinctual, got better guns and made it easier for kids to shoot people."
Grandpa Tobias's point is that their suspects so far -- Clover, who's probably insane, and Nora, who stinks as even an ex-spouse to the accused deputy -- don't feel like they're motivated by the usual killing causes: love, money, or rage.

Of course, Tobias has candidates for the killer role, based on his secret files that he's compiled on just about everyone on the islands. But Tish isn't supposed to leak word of those files ... a difficult position to be in, considering other people already suspect they exist.

My money's on the hippies. Take their leader, Mars, for instance, who tells Tish, "Death is just the next stage."

Trust me, Tish can't leave that performance note alone -- she's on it. Rain or shine. No, wait a minute, this is the Pacific Northwest -- rain or more rain, really.

If you're looking for a summer mystery that's likely to get you cheered up, in spite of murder and risk, and will find a way to have the forces of good triumph (or at least get kissed?), pick up AGAINST THE UNDERTOW. Published by one of several businesses that Maines plays with, Blue Zephyr Press, and available at online retailers in softcover or ebook. You don't need to read the books in sequence -- let me know if you find yourself lured to get more Bethany Maines capers.

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


Monday, June 25, 2018

Ultimate Summer Fiction, SHE WAS THE QUIET ONE by Michele Campbell

Last year's title from Michele Campbell swept onto the bestseller lists: It's Always the Husband commanded eager attention as a breakthrough thriller.

Her next title will release on July 31 -- and I'm mentioning SHE WAS THE QUIET ONE well ahead of time, so you'll have a chance to preorder a first edition and also to choose an author event to attend. If you have any trauma memories from high school, and especially from any boarding situation (even the first year of college), this book will walk into your mind and take up permanent residence.

Dark, swiftly paced, and unflinching in its revelations, SHE WAS THE QUIET ONE begins with a crime and works back through a tangled and painful net of student friendships and malice. Start with a pair of sisters, forced into boarding school through the death of their parents and guardianship by a wealthy if distant relative. Now add cliques, hazing, sexual exploration, and an atmosphere of constant pressure to take the dare -- and you've got the atmosphere where Rose and Bel Enright step directly into danger and betrayal at their posh New England school.

Campbell's previous legal career and her own family move to New England deepen the context of the book. I wanted to step away from its vicious world of manipulation and seduction -- but it's a true page-turner, and I was hooked even as I dreaded each new revelation. (St. Martin's Press.)

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

Brief Mention, THE COMPLETIONIST, Siobhan Adcock

This new dystopian suspense thriller offers up "near-future America" as a male-dominated police state after a environmental collapse -- where the very stuff of life, water itself, has to be engineered. As a result of its disastrous effects on the birth rate, pregnancy is suddenly a "must do" if it's possible -- any fertile woman is compelled to bear her child, and women must give up their lives beyond intense parenting, in order to devote "Care Hours" to their offspring, for best and most productive survival.

The title of Siobhan Adcock's THE COMPLETIONIST refers to the term the author uses for a nurse-midwife who nurtures a pregnancy to its successful birth -- and it's the career of Gardner Quinn, the missing sister of war veteran Carter Quinn. Quinn, a veteran of the water protection wars, has extreme PTSD and linked substance abuse problems. But he'd determined to respond to the request of his other sister, Fredrika, and search for Gardner.

What he can't foresee, of course, is the damage he'll do to his own family while trying to redeem it.

Adcock's earlier book, The Barter, also focused on motherhood, but from a very different approach. In shaping THE COMPLETIONIST as a dystopian crime novel, she made inevitable the comparisons with Margaret Atwood's grimly powerful The Handmaid's Tale. But Adcock is not a literary writer -- she's tuned to the quick pace and twists of a thriller instead -- and her conclusion doesn't hold up the weight of the topic she'd tackled. Read this one as a page-turner, and keep expectations modest: It's not a "change your life" book, despite the social themes. I enjoyed it, but found the ending a bit drab compared to some of the high suspense earlier in the book.

Simon & Schuster brought this out, and it's a June release.


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

MURDER ON THE LEFT BANK, Aimée Leduc 18 from Cara Black

Who knows what goes on behind the scenes of a long-running mystery series? A few authors have the knack of making each fresh title seem as good as all the ones before it -- or better. But most go up and down a bit, or some titles appeal more to some readers, and so on.

Whatever the pattern is, Cara Black busted clear from it in her epic 18th Aimée Leduc mystery, MURDER ON THE LEFT BANK. Best yet! Each of Black's mysteries with the stylish Parisian detective, now a single mom with a network of support people, has focused on a particular quartier of Paris. This highly successful one begins with a lawyer in the 13th arrondissement, a friend of Aimée's, whose effort to take a shortcut with a compromising document results in the death of his own nephew. Stricken and guilt-wrenched, Éric Besson persuades Aimée to search for the now-missing document -- which leads directly to the crime and power syndicate that Aimée recognizes from murder and betrayal in her own family. Is her deceased father involved in the document? Does she need to stop yet another attack -- one that could affect her own baby Chloé?

Black's plotting is intense and acutely paced, with twists in each chapter and a smooth and powerful narrative that sweeps through the book. She deftly weaves in her usual details of her detective's passion for (gently used) couture clothing along while also slipstreaming her amazing detective agency partner René:
Aimée joined the applause as René presented the award. She then found a flute of champagne and him in that order.

"Nice speech," she said.

His large green eyes popped. "Nice outfit."

She'd worn her cowboy boots and a denim jacket over a black liquid sequin mini accessorized with a slouchy Céline boho bag. Give the outfits here, it was a good thing she'd left the couture in her armoire.  ... She groaned.

"Smile until it hurts," he said. "At least your sequins will grab their attention."
But Aimée is going to need a lot of replacement items for the adventurous pace of her investigation into Paris's power demons:
The garden had ended at a wall. Footsteps crashed in the dark underbrush. Aimée shined her penlight, revealing red smears streaking the glossy leaves.

Blood. Her knees trembled. Whose blood?

Aimée heard a high-pitched whine of a cat in heat and then René's shout: "Over here!"

Had René found Éric?

She forged ahead, continuing along the wall until she came to a woman's slumped figure.

Aimée stumbled, caught herself. "Karine?"

Karine's glassy-eyes stare reflected in Aimée's penlight beam. The tarnished, paint-spattered handle of a pair of scissors protruded from Karine's neck.

"Mon Dieu," said René.
Although Aimée is a private investigator, her adventures tend to feel closer to those of an amateur sleuth: probing each possible combination of means, motive, and opportunity, until things grow dangerous and her own degree of risk shows she's closing in on the criminal(s) responsible. In MURDER ON THE LEFT BANK, she's not just putting herself at risk -- her baby's under threat. So the pace accelerates, the threats multiply, and even her skillful friends may have trouble keeping her safe.

If you missed a few of the 18 previous books, you'll still handle this one well, since Black brings in just the right amount of detail from the earlier investigations. And it's so well crafted that it may well tug you back to the earliest books in the series (say, Murder in the Marais).

This is a great season to focus on collecting the first editions of Black's mysteries, since she's already hinting this series may come to a natural finale when all the districts of Paris have had their places in her mysteries. Good reading, via Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press. And ideal for the summer reading stack.

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

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Swedish Noir Trilogy Concludes, SLOWLY WE DIE from Emelie Schepp

Special prosecutor Jana Berzelius tackles a traumatically gruesome set of serial killings in this third and final book in this noted Swedish crime fiction trilogy from Emelie Schepp. SLOWLY WE DIE pits Berzelius against what looks like a group of revenge murders. But who's doing them, and why? At first, all Berzelius knows is that the victims are people who usually get thanked, not murdered: they're first responders and other medically trained experts.

But then again, considering the murder weapon is a skillfully used scalpel, the murderer may also belong inside that world where life and death are negotiated daily.

The two earlier books in this series are Marked for Life  and Marked for Revenge. Although I read a lot of noir, this series gave me chills at a level that I didn't choose to put into detail in reviews, because of the underlying crime of child sexual abuse, graphically shown in the other two books, that drives Berzelius in her work. So yes, you'll get more of the haunting horror that Berzelius faces in this third book if you read the other two first.

Then again -- the situation this time is so terrifying ... Berzelius winds up sharing her home with a terrifying person from her past, who's blackmailing her into letting him stay:
When she'd left the apartment, Danilo had been standing in the hall, looking at her. His arms had been crossed and something resembling a sneer had been on his lips. But he hadn't said anything, and she hadn't, either. She had simply met his gaze and fantasized about putting her hands around his neck and squeezing until he was gasping for breath.

She would gladly break every bone in his body and would more than gladly erase him from the face of the earth. But killing him was not an option -- not yet.
Right, maybe you don't need to take it any darker than this third book already presents. And it gets more frightening -- although the finely tuned and paced writing may well drag you though this book at a very high speed. (It did, for me.)

Blurbs for the book, because it's "Scandinavian noir," compare it to Jo Nesbø's writing. But I'd pick Karin Fossum as the most comparable. Prepare to shudder.

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

YA Suspense Debut from Gia Cribbs, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SLOANE SULLIVAN

Sometimes first books can be outrageously good -- because the author is brilliant, or grabbed a clever idea, or has been working on that debut novel for years, making it better with every revision.

Don't know which of those reasons applies to THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SLOANE SULLIVAN by Gia Cribbs, a Maryland author. But with this YA crossover, she's definitely on target with finely tuned suspense, fast plot twists, and that special aspect that makes a "young adult" thriller so particularly haunting: a teenage protagonist whose knowledge of the situation, by definition, is incomplete -- she's just too inexperienced to seriously doubt the explanations of people close to her.

Sloane Sullivan is smart, though. Moving into a new school district just a few months before graduation, she's psyched to complete her senior year of high school and get on with college (depending, of course, on where she gets accepted). She's got an extra incentive to keep cool and make sure her friendships in this new location are responsible and calm: She's in witness protection, and the guy taking care of her says if she completes high school, she can actually NOT disappear for a change -- keep this latest "new name" and go out into the world without being controlled, monitored, watched over. At last!

Sloane's an expert in knowing when a situation might be closing in on her, putting her into danger. She's drilled for years in how to handle that, and she's used to needing to leave an identity behind at the drop of a hat (or textbook). And she's made a lot of sacrifices to stay safe:
Today was the start of a new week and my eighteenth birthday. ... I wanted to wear something to celebrate the occasion. The problem was my wardrobe, which consisted only of basics: jeans and T-shirts and hoodies in plain, solid colors. It made it easier every time we moved. Anything too distinctive wasn't allowed to travel with me, and I learned really quickly not to waste money on pretty things that got left behind.
She hides her cell phone, too, because it's only for emergencies. BIG emergencies.

So when the new school turns out to include her best friend from before she had to go into hiding, and she really ought to report that and brace for moving AGAIN (and changing names) -- Sloane decides to gamble on not being recognized. Her eye color hides under contacts; she's way older; she's got a new set of moves, from sports to music. Nobody will know, right?

When the scene goes wrong, Sloane needs to make fast choices on who to trust and how to survive. Count on some moments of intense danger, even deadly kinds -- and watch Sloane work out her next plan.

Great book for teens, and equally good for adults. It won't change your life -- but it will give you time off, wrapped up in adventure with a great teenager. What more could you want?

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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Blood Lust and Crime Solving, in HANGMAN from Jack Heath

Jack Heath (a pen name) is an Australian writer of a lot of books for kids -- and HANGMAN is the exception to his routine, a most-definitely-for-adults thriller that steps onto the stage often occupied by dark, frightening criminals like Dexter, or Garry Disher's Wyatt.  Except --

Except that FBI consultant Timothy Blake, who's been slaking his peculiar thirst with a deal that keeps him solving crimes for the officials in his life, is struggling to deal with a crime-solving partner for the first time, a woman who works for the FBI as a professional. When he discovers how easily he connects with this other crime solver (who has no idea of his dirty deal, or his tastes), he's caught in the classic really-shouldn't-bite-that-pretty neck dilemma of many a vampire in far more romantic situations.

And with that thread, Jack Heath has formed the triangle of forces working on and in his protagonist: a hunger for human flesh, a mind well shaped to investigation and intuitive grasp of crime, and a heart that's unexpectedly pushing into his affairs.

There are many "ugh" moments in this crime novel -- made worthwhile by Blake's first-person narrative and his battles to both stay alive and in some way stay on the right side of his own blood-drawn lines:
An hour later the bones and tendons have dissolved. I pick up a twisted wire coathanger and dip the hook into the acid. After a bit of fumbling, I've found the plug and pulled it out. ...

As I watch the dead man disappear down the plughole in a grey-brown whirlpool, like the Ambulance Killer before him, I feel like I should say something. A brief eulogy. A few kind words.

But when I eventually get caught and executed, no one will say anything nice about me.
Obviously this book won't suit all tastes. But I found it compelling, found myself hoping Blake could redeem his life, or his ways, or at least his investigation. If you often read the dark side, try HANGMAN. Jack Heath is well worth reading.

And this quirky offering comes from Hanover Square Press, home of an astoundingly wide range of innovative crime fiction.

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

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Second Bianca St. Ives Thriller from Karen Robards, THE MOSCOW DECEPTION

Move over, James Bond and Jack Reacher. There's a woman racing around the world using her genetically modified strength and hard-earned analytical skills to fight for her freedom and a bit more justice overall, and she's fast, smart, and determined. Welcome to the practiced hands of author Karen Robards:

Bianca St. Ives, a DC-area entrepreneur with an amazing tech team, just wants a chance to live and earn her living -- without the presence of her often creepy father figure and the criminal masterminds constantly searching for him. And oh yes, the American government and other special teams hunting for her, too, under her earlier names. Her biotech background, revealed fully in the first book of this thriller series, The Ultimatum, and sketched again here in THE MOSCOW DECEPTION, makes her a target for total disappearance (yes, death and more).

But Bianca's always been willing to take risks, and in this case that means getting back in touch with Mason Thayer -- not actually her father after all, but still the man who knows the most about her past and about the target on her back. The book's title refers to the trade Thayer proposes if she wants his help in surviving: an expert jewel theft she'll need to commit in Moscow, with another hand-picked team eager to share the financial rewards of what she has in mind.
If she was being targeted, if she was being hunted, her best bet might be to shut down the company, put the condo on the market, and go.

Could anybody say, run for your life?

The thought was unutterably depressing.

So don't think about it. For now, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Bianca's reasoning and her allies can only take her so far -- and then she'll need a bit better luck than she'd had lately. The question is, would reconnecting with the mysterious but physically alluring Colin Rogan, a presumed MI6 agent who's tracking her, improve her luck -- or send her spiralling into prison or worse?

Great summer reading, adventurous, quickly paced, and just wild enough to suspend skepticism and take the wild ride that a Bianca St. Ives thriller from Karen Robards (and Mira, Harlequin's mystery and thriller imprint) demands.

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

Delightful and Unusual Western, TIMBERLINE, from Maine Athor Matthew P. Mayo

In the same way that the "two for a quarter" steamy romance novels at the yard sale can all seem alike after a while, "Westerns" can seem pretty similar -- horses, tough men, women in long dresses and bonnets, and an unfortunate past abusive angle that diminished Native Americans to painful stereotypes.

You'll have to say goodbye to those past impressions in order to pick up the newest release from Maine author (and Lyndon State College, VT, graduate) Matthew P. Mayo. Third in the series featuring Roamer, a homely (even scary-looking) frontiersman, TIMBERLINE offers a winter adventure in crime-solving, chasing across a blizzard-swept landscape, and reliance on friendship.

Let's start with Roamer, whose appearance keeps most people away from him and deceives others into thinking anyone who's obviously suffered so many attacks from nature and humankind must be weak-minded. Actually, Roamer reads the classics, treasures his books, and is hauling a sack of them along on a short train trip that should end in meeting up with his mountain-man friend Maple Jack -- a raconteur of the first order.

On the railroad platform, ready to board, Roamer catches sight of an amazingly lovely young woman:
Faint purple smudges rested beneath her bright, wide eyes, a blue nearly as rich as her cloak, and wreathed by long lashes. She looked to be a young woman getting over a sickness that had somehow enhanced her beauty. At least that's the fanciful line of though I caught myself trailing. I averted my gaze as she turned and made her way through the little crowd, which parted before her as if she were a magical being.
Absorbed in contemplating this wonder, Roamer neglects to turn aside in time, and the young woman catches a full view of his own face: "She looked into my eyes and her mirth was replaced with the inevitable fear and pity. Revulsion would be next."

Yet because the young woman doesn't completely ignore him on board the train, and because the obvious criminal types on board who laugh at Roamer's book passion also seem determined to humiliate the young woman, Roamer unthinkingly takes her side, and soon finds himself battling the worst of an early blizzard in an effort to rescue her from villains.

There are worse aspects in play, besides his homely appearance, and unless someone as skilled and loyal as Roamer's friend Maple Jack can make an unexpected appearance, things look grim for the oversized if courageous frontiersman.

Swift twists of plot in Mayo's experienced hands turn Roamer's assumptions inside out. And though the scenes are soon piled deep with murdered men and horses, what will shape Roamer's success or failure has more to do with his own skills and his ability to read both the Western landscape and the outrageous greed of many an arrival on the scene.

Almost 200 pages long, TIMBERLINE (from Five Star/Cengage) represents one branch of the "new" Western -- nurturing courage and determination as the land becomes better understood -- and provides a glance into the soul of the person struggling to survive there.

Oh, I'm not suggesting this is a mystery -- there's little doubt about the murders that take place, and while Roamer needs to figure out what's going on under the surface, he won't do it by any mystery genre route -- but it's from a New England author carving a wide swath of good writing, and I want to tip a hat to it. Tuck a copy into your summer reading stack for a bit of diversity; see what the teens in your life think of its approach, too (nothing in here that will harm them). And no, there is nothing racist in this book, perhaps marking the slow, steady turn of the Western genre to a more honest (if still romantic) appraisal of our nation's Westward expansion. Open to enjoyment across genders, too.

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

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Classic Thriller, Brilliant in Its Twists, WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT by Sandra Block

Take all the horror stories you've read in the "real news" about sexual molesting at frat houses and other university clubs. Add to it the humiliation and shock of a gang-rape victim who can't remember what happened, thanks to being drugged -- but who arrives at a hospital wounded and damaged in every part of her body, and who eventually finds her office mates watching a video of her assault.

That's the baseline of WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, one of the best classic thrillers I've read this year. But author Sandra Block goes way beyond the suspense and desperate desire for crime solving that this situation inspires when she provides for Dahlia, barely functioning as a paralegal, to find the support she needs from a shy "IT" guy (programmer) named James -- whose "differentness" is captured in the term "Asperger's syndrome." Except for the highly pertinent fact that the term misses out on both his persistence and his tender ability to care for Dahlia. Which is, of course, an astounding situation for both of them, but especially for Dahlia, whose effort to kill herself some time ago made complete sense.

The video's arrival online marks the moment Dahlia chooses to move from ultimate victim to a force for justice. Not necessarily legal justice -- but a fierce and furious balancing of the scales against at least four of the men who raped her and made fun of her painful abasement.

No wonder James seems like an amazing answer to her needs: On his body, unlike the tattoos on Dahlia's, is a string of Japanese characters spelling the word for "revenge."

I could not put this book down. The twists, the suspense, the emotional connections building against the odds between Dahlia and James -- it stunned me. There are also interludes of flashback to the year of the rape, like this one in Dahlia's voice:
It is a bit shocking, but I love my tattoo.

It's the one thing I've managed to accomplish over the last couple of months in Cambridge. Ink. It was like therapy. My tattoo artist, Claire, asked why I wanted a tattoo. I told her that I wanted to take my body back. And she said "Cool" quite simply, and that was that.

We talked. Well, I talked, and she listened. It hurt, sure, but I really didn't mind. It was my idea. My pain. And while she etched survivor on my arm and surrounded it with darkness turning into lightness, I felt better. Tattoo therapy, maybe. It was better than that Rae-Ann woman anyway, who just drank tea the whole time.

I don't try to explain any of this to my mom.
What intrigues me most about WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT is the way it shatters the genre conventions so successfully. Face it, a gang-rape victim turning to revenge -- that should be darkness all the way. But Block commands a rising and wakening from her plot and characters, and the ending is almost too tender to bear -- but not really. It fits, as inevitable as it is surprising.

Don't let the brutal crime involved keep you away from grabbing a copy of this book (new from Sourcebooks Landmark). It's a compelling read, a memorable one, and, dare I say, a lifesaver. Or so I mean light-saver? Yeah, like that. (By the way, it's blurbed by Lisa Scottoline, and deserves it.)

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

Bittersweet Humor, Taut Crime Pacing, in LONDON RULES from Mick Herron

Mick Herron's Slough House series has already drawn a pair of CWA (Crime Writers' Association, UK) silver daggers -- and with this fifth of the full-length "MI5/6" style crime novels in the series, he's hitting some of his best notes yet.

Any reader of John Le Carré already knows the term "Moscow Rules": the keep-safe guidelines for espionage on foreign turf, where every stranger can be ready to sabotage your effort or your life. In a brilliant an enteraining twist, Mick Herron provides "London Rules" -- the conventions of the dog-eat-dog tangle of British espionage agencies competing for government favor, funding, and job security along the Thames and in the adjacent terrain.

LONDON RULES opens (after a dramatic mass murder preface) with an artful discussion of the daylight's revelations in Slough House, home to failed domestic espionage agents who can't be fired -- but can be made supremely miserable and humiliated by repeated assignments to tasks involving phone bills, website listings, and such. In fact, the tiny pocket of underemployment would be an utter failure and disgrace, were it not for its leader, the bright but rather disgusting (verbally, in appearance, and through massive farting) Jackson Lamb. Because Lamb may have the Service's supreme screwballs. But when they get to Slough House, they become HIS screwballs, to torment and mock in conversation and duties ... and to align and operate under the radar when he so chooses, protected by his massive influence, connections, and, sigh, persistent blackmail.
[Lamb's office] is cramped and furtive, like a kennel, and its overpowering theme is neglect. Psychopaths are said to decorate their walls with crazy writing, the loops and whorls of their infinite equations an attempt at cracking the code their life is hostage to. Lamb prefers his walls to do their own talking, and they have cooperated to the extent that the cracks in their plasterwork, their mildew stains, have here and there conspired to produce something that might amount to an actual script ... a moving finger had write before deciding, contrary to the wisdom of the ages to rub out again.
Such pretentious teasing prose is quickly balanced by a sequence of disasters and threats that forces Jackson Lamb to place his "agents" back into play, even as he mocks the chances that they might succeed.

But it's necessary, because as Lamb's rather unpleasant agent Shirley Dander -- on her 62nd drug-free day -- discovers, someone is trying to murder her fellow agent Roderick ("Roddy") Ho. And the grotesque linkages in Slough House mean if one agent's at risk of sudden death, so are they all.

Soon Lamb and his able (if a lot crazy) assistant Catherine Standish take Shirley's side. They even confront one of the superiors trying to shut them down, Emma Flyte, as Flyte argues about that opening mass murder and its sequelae:
"So let's say he's right. Even if the Park [the active security force] don't listen, tell them about it and you've covered your back."

[Lamb responds] "Yeah, not really. Because if these guys are laying waste to the country using a script the Service wrote, there are few lengths the Park won't go to to cover it up. And anyone who knows about it will be in the firing line. Which includes you, if you'd lost count. Don't make the mistake of thinking you'll be safe when they start playing London Rules. Because you're not a suit, Flyte. You're a joe [agent]. And joes are expendable." ... Lamb shrugged. "I'm in no hurry to be elsewhere. But what I'm appealing to are your survival instincts."
Lamb's right. The question is, with London Rules pushing the powerful to protect their own backsides and shove everyone else into the line of fire, how can the Slough House team -- the Slow Horses -- possibly get out of this, both alive and employed?

Series readers already know how quickly Herron can tie these burned-out and substance-abusing agents into knots that are somehow also hilarious, just the way one of Lamb's farts would be if it took place in certain higher offices. LONDON RULES pushes the stakes and the twisted hilarity higher than ever,

Oh sure, you can plunge into LONDON RULES without reading the earlier books first -- think of yourself as stepping through Alice's mirror or down the rabbit hole, and roll with it. Then grab all four preceding titles (reviews here) and have yourself a explosive week of head-shaking, food-spitting laughter.

And somehow or other, Herron always pulls the plot lines back into place in time for a highly satisfying denoument. This time -- well, it's explosive in terms of what's ahead for the series. But if this is your first Slough House book, you'll have to watch really closely to see what the hidden hand is up to as the book reaches its finale.

Herron's books usually reach publication in the United Kingdom first, and Soho Crime (an imprint of Soho Press) brings them across the "pond." Thank goodness.

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


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Intense Lowcountry Mystery from C. Hope Clark, NEWBERRY SIN

What a delight to sink into the fourth Carolina Slade mystery from award-winning author C. Hope Clark, NEWBERRY SIN. Well actually, this is the kind of sometimes chilling murder mystery that makes me jump up to check that the door is locked, on my way to put the kettle on. But that's all good, when suspense and risk are supposed to be lining up!

And with Carolina Slade, an amateur sleuth despite her job description that includes "investigation" on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture, suspense and risk are necessities -- they keep Slade happy, and they connect her to a pro investigator, her romantic partner Wayne Largo.

So when a radio host takes Slade along to witness a newly discovered corpse and pushes her to follow the trail of possible corruption within the USDA, that should be a happy moment, right?

Ooops. Not this time. Slade's seriously confused about her relationship with Wayne (and it's getting worse), her boss is determined to strip her of any investigatory possibilities, her co-workers are under threat because she can't handle all of this, and the crime field is widening with every moment that she's forced to spend detouring around those roadblocks.

I've been a fan of C. Hope Clark's mysteries since the start of her Carolina Slade mysteries, set in the coastal Lowcountry of South Carolina, where community has Kevlar-strong threads and knotted webs of connection, much like my home terrain of Vermont. For example, Slade's contacts tug her into a coffee gathering right away, to set her straight on what she needs to resolve (as well as the murder):
I then studied the women. "Hello, I'm Carolina Slade. Which one of you is Mrs. Cassie Abrams?"

The one who raised her hand held the coarsest stare. Gray-headed, hair up in a bun, the charcoal pants outfit hinted her new role as widow. "I am she. And you have some accounting to do."

"Pardon me?" This felt more like an ambush. Made me wonder how much Lottie had exacerbated her story to draw this crew.  ... [I turned my] attention to Cassie, who chose to continue speaking in lieu of letting me give the accounting she'd just demanded.

"That vamp y'all put in your office here. Despicable. Manipulative. You planted her, I say. Using her ways to entice our men to come in, sign on more debt, then y'all take all this credit for serving Newberry. Even confiscate our land."
And that's the least of the misstatements, accusations, and threats Slade's going to have to cope with. Meanwhile, she may mess up her personal life even further.

C. Hope Clark is a pro with lines of tension, twist of plot, and above all, a protagonist whose courage and pain are front and center. I couldn't put this one down.

No, you don't need to read the others in the series (or Clark's other series, the Edisto Island books) to enjoy this one. And they do keep getting better ... but I'm guessing after you savor this one, you'll want the set. Classic amateur sleuth work, with extra high suspense and personal challenges. What's not to like? (As long as it's in the book, not in the living room, right?)

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