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

Zingers and Twists, in TINY CRIMES: VERY SHORT TALES OF MYSTERY & MURDER

It's almost release day (which will be June 1), so I'm jumping in with another enthusiastic recommendation (if you read mystery reviews, you've seen some already!) for TINY CRIMES, a compact, neatly designed, and very, very enjoyable set of extra-short stories, aka flash fiction, that set out mysteries, suspense, crime, or astonishing darkness. It's as if editors Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Neito skimmed the best and strangest tales from all the strongest mystery magazines going, and packed them into this intense block of well-designed illustrated pages. Thirty-nine of them.

Many are written by specialists in the short story form -- which isn't my usual area of reading, so the names of the authors were new to me, although their credits at the back of the book are fierce and impressive. Two particularly thrilled me: a New England tale well spun by Elizabeth Hand, and an unforgettable surreal one from Japanese noir novelist Fuminori Nakamura. I also like the one from Paul La Farge, which begins "The next to last time I saw Polanski" (talk about classic!), and couldn't stop marveling (with dark chuckles) at "Hygge" by Dorthe Nors.

Treat yourself. As far as I can tell, there's only one drawback to buying this book: You won't want to pass it along to a friend ... because there's always going to be a moment when you think "That story I liked so much, I should read it again" -- and this one's going to have to stay on your shelf. Or even on the bedside table.

From Black Balloon, published by Catapult. Good stuff.

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

The Hangman's Daughter Series #7, THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE by Oliver Pötzsch

It's time for this year's Bavarian hangman mystery set in the 1600s, from mystery and thriller author Oliver Pötzsch -- and it's a wild ride!

As THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE opens in 1672, hangman Jacob Kuisl, a true specialist in a time that needs his skills, is preparing for a journey to Munich, with his family. That includes daughter Barbara, who needs to get engaged, and daughter Magdelena, a crime-solver of unusual courage and determination (highly motivated by the need to protect and survive for her child).

It will be Magdelena who eventually takes the greatest risks in trying to solve a rash of young women's deaths in Munich. But she comes by her investigative side directly from her father, who's working the crimes from another angle, the basic autopsy, before the term was well known:
"Then let's do it." Kuisl pulled the girl's dress up. He got out his knife, which he sharpened as frequently as his executioner's sword, and made the first insertion from the breastbone downward.

The hangman had cut open dozens of bodies in his life. Like Deibler, he was fascinated by the inside of humans, of which very little was known as yet. Kuisl believed he had more medical knowledge than most studied physicians from here to Schongau. He was the proud owner of a small Latin library at his house, hundreds of medicines, and countless surgical instruments, which he sometimes lent to his son-in-law.

Because he's the physician and I'm just a dishonorable hangman, Kuisl thought.
Yet Jacob Kuisl knows a belly full of deadly nightshade when he finds it (in fact, he'd already suspected it), and just like that, he's making progress on the case in front of him.

Too bad Magdelena doesn't have as easy a route to her part of the investigation. Yes, she learns a lot, very quickly, while being held captive at threat of life and other losses. But cut off from her husband and her father, what can she actually do to protect herself and prevent other deaths?

Pötzsch (with translator Lee Chadeayne) spins a fast-paced tale with abundant risk, suspense, and twists -- while smoothly carrying the 1600s into all possible details of setting and crime. And when a colleague complains about how the hangmen's association is being treated during the hunt for the criminal, saying, "In good old Bamberg, folks still appreciate a hangman and don't chop off his hands and feet," Jacob Kuisl quickly replies, "In good old Bamberg, folks were hunting for a werewolf only a few years ago." He's got quite a challenge in trying to persuade his colleagues that the serial killer who's been murdering young women might come after them, too, for what they may already know or guess.

At close to 500 pages, THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE is a long romp that transports summer reading into fresh terrain, with humor and clever detection. In addition, as I mentioned when reviewing last year's title in the series (The Play of Death), you may have extra reason to grab a copy if any of the following pertain to you:

1. You collect the reading experience of mysteries set in Bavaria.
2. You pursue fiction set in the 1600s.
3. You're planning to see the Bread & Puppet Theater in action in Vermont (or treasure having done so in the past, especially in the 1970s and 1980s).

And in addition, there's a dog at stake in this one. Talk about diverse! The series is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE is available May 29.

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

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Very Different British Mystery from Judith Cutler, Teacher's Point of View, in HEAD COUNT

When's the last time you read a mystery that paid attention to the social needs of eight-year-olds, the career risks of head lice, and the criminal vulnerability of illegal immigrants?

Right -- I thought so. Welcome to HEAD COUNT, a series debut from highly experienced British author Judith Cutler. Brush up your cricket terms just in case (Cutler adores it), and jump into action with Jane Cowan. Not only is she the head of two schools instead of one this term -- she's also in high demand as an umpire for official league games of cricket in the region. Bottom line: She's got to hang tough, no matter what.

But that won't be easy, as her newly adopted small primary school is neighbor to an irritated and manipulative major landowner; unplanned students with language issues land in her classrooms; and one of the biggest guys in the cricket group has multiple grievances with her that may play out painfully, both on the field and in the school hallways.
And what could I do? Tell the governors, for one thing. But that didn't involve striding around, questioning people -- anything. It must have been some of that frustration that Hazel Roberts sensed. 'I'll alert everyone else on the board and start them searching too. Meanwhile, my dear, get off the phone. It's vital you keep the line open. You're the point of contact for everyone -- the still point of the turning world, as Eliot put it.

Where on earth could Zunaid be?
Cowan's roles may pin her into forced play or, regrettably, non-play. But that doesn't mean she can't make sure a missing student is safely found, and a set of major crimes brought to a halt. With a bit of danger along the way.

Cutler's written some 40 novels and knows how to spin the tale. This book came out in the UK in 2017 from Allison & Busby, and reached the US this month via Casemate/IPM. It's a pleasant read, and good to add to the summer reading stack, for a chance to relax and follow along in a traditional mystery with neat twists and satisfying (if somewhat predictable) finale.

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

Barbara Cleverly, British Mystery Author, Launches New Series, FALL OF ANGELS

Change has its challenges. If you've read your way through all 13 books of Barbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands series, with its ex-military, ex-India investigator easing open the layers of British society between the two world wars, take a deep breath. Pretend you're reading a new author. And step into the 1923 world of Detective Inspector John Redfyre. There, it's not so terrible if you don't try to imagine a 14th Sandilands book, right?

And for the rest of you -- readers of British mysteries old and new, and investigators of that mysterious interlude after the Great War and before the bombings that will crush London -- welcome to the smooth, polished writing of one of the heirs of the Dorothy Sayers mystery tradition. Cleverly keeps a tight plot, never loses track of her red herrings, and plays fairly with the rules of the genre: Search for motive, means, and opportunity, and try to solve the case a page or two before the protagonist announces how it all went!

FALL OF ANGELS provides a wide cast of smart women to balance DI Redfyre's appearance. Pressing for equal representation in the vote, and also in the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, Cleverly's women range widely. There's the highly attractive and clever young trumpeter, Juno Proudfoot, making her academic debut at a Christmas concert that Redfyre's been manipulated into attending (way up front). And there's Redfyre's fiercely independent Aunt Henrietta, who seems to think she can gently nudge her nephew into a planned role in the battle for the fair sex. And, of course, Redfyre's own friends -- a circle rapidly growing.

His superiors and peers are not as well equipped to infiltrate England's conservative social scene, so Redfyre must tackle the case mostly alone. Fortunately, he's aware of Aunt Henrietta's proclivities, so when an emergency erupts, he's ready to take charge:
Redfyre firmly drew the doctor aside and spoke to him quietly. "I'd rather she didn't skip off. Miss Stretton will be staying with me for the moment. She's a witness to what may well turn out to be a crime."

"A crime?" The doctor looked back at Juno in some puzzlement. "Fallling down a dark staircase is hardly a crime, surely."

"Attempted murder is a crime in my book," said Redfyre. "This apparent accident will be investigated as such ... I would be most grateful if you could bear that in mind when you carry out your more detailed examination at the hospital."

"Indeed? Well, of course. A sort of 'ante-mortem' report? Understood."
That sort of military conspiring of the men on scene works out well for Redfyre. But to get to the truth of the case, he'll have to sort through the much more devious plans of the women instead. (I did mention Dorothy Sayers, didn't I?)

Once I stopped mourning the absence of Joe Sandilands, I enjoyed FALL OF ANGELS. I'm interested in seeing how Cleverly, one of the true professionals of the British "traditional mystery" genre, will draw us further into the complicated 1920s and the rather pleasant interior of her new detective, in the titles yet to come. From Soho Crime, a Soho Press imprint.

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


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Forensics and Detection, 1768 Style, in SAVAGE LIBERTY from Eliot Pattison

Available this week, the newest "Mystery of Revolutionary America" is the fifth in Eliot Pattison's series that was originally called the Bone Rattler books, after the first title in it. An international attorney (still practicing) and master of three vastly different series with three entirely separate cultures -- the other two are Chinese-occupied Tibet, and a post-apocalyptic version of a nuclear frontier -- Pattison crafts an immersion experience of hardships, crime, investigation, and dramatic changes. And SAVAGE LIBERTY perches at a fierce point in history, as colonists with diverse background and motives began to realize that rejecting the British king's power over them could be possible.

Most compelling in Pattison's books are his wounded heroes: here, the Scottish medically trained Duncan McCallum, bound under a punitive indenture contract that prevents him from committing to the love of his life, Sarah Ramsey. Ramsey is herself an outrageous figure for the time, trying to craft a peaceable community of Judeo-Christians, frontier folk, and Native Americans at the edge of the East Coast's strip of "civilization." But by binding McCallum for long-ago "criminality" and a few recent misjudgments, Ramsey's father effectively prevents the couple from a balanced and equal relationship.

This is part of McCallum's motive for taking off into the wilderness in search of a rogue collaboration of British and Abenaki warmongers -- they've pushed his bonding further and put a bounty on his head. But as always in Pattison's books, the emotional depth comes with McCallum's identification with members of a threatened culture: in this case, the Native Americans being brutally evicted from their lands. One of the most moving scenes in the book involves McCallum witnessing a heartbreaking farewell to the trees and forest, by his Nipmuc friend and ally, Conawago. Pattison's strongly drawn parallel of the outlawed Scottish Highland clans and the Native American tribes provides McCallum with some of his passion for the Nipmuc and his allies. Yet, as in Pattison's Tibet series, it's the underlying spiritual commitment that most deeply connects these men.

McCallum's usual care in decision making goes off track in SAVAGE LIBERTY. With the unsettling of his belief in the king's right to rule the colonies also comes an unsettling of some of his loyalties and convictions. And his beloved isn't pleased, telling him, "Stealing muskets from the king! Bribing army guards. This is how you will prove yourself innocent of treason! I beg you, Duncan, leave this behind before it is too late."

But Duncan McCallum is forming a new commitment, to the Sons of Liberty, a group that's clearly fomenting revolution. It's troubling him:
He lay on a comforter beside Sarah's bed, listening to the slow, quiet breathing of Sarah and Will, recalling prior conversations in Boston. The arguments with the king would never come to violence, Hancock and Sam Adams always insisted. King George would soon recognize that the inhabitants of his most valuable colonies had to be given the same respect as Englishmen in the home country, and all would then rally around the monarch. But the terrible visions of the innkeeper's dying wife now visited him, vivid images of ill-trained colonists being massacred by British regulars, the massed bullets of their. Brown Besses mowing down farmers and shopkeepers like the blade of a bloody scythe. Whenever a colonist fell, an Abenaki materialized to rip away his scalp.
Pattison's choice of Abenaki for the most dangerous criminal in this book (in a revenge motif based on the massacre of the St. Francis group of the tribe) disturbed me, as it seemed a choice that could tar an entire group of people with a label of irrational and uncontained violence. I kept pausing to check details, finding that small parts that rubbed me wrong -- scalping, displays of scalps -- had ample historical backup, but still ill at ease. I also missed the more deliberate investigative direction of earlier titles in the series.

That said, Pattison does a masterful job of keeping his red herrings afloat and his competing rationales for crime and violence well sorted out. Most vitally, he illustrates the slow and irreversible turn from an angry but heartfelt loyalty to the monarch, toward the possibility of independence. I look forward to how he'll carry Duncan McCallum into the very forces of liberty in the next book of the series. And, of course, to how this deep-probing author will illustrate the ongoing death of tribal occupation of the new America. "Savage" liberty, indeed.

Publication is by Counterpoint, and the book's release date is May 22.

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

Stunning Crime Novel with Intense Twists, DEAD GIRLS by Graeme Cameron

Sick of all the book titles that use "girl" or "girls" lately? Don't let that delay your reach for Graeme Cameron's second book, DEAD GIRLS. This British author spins a complex and highly gratifying suspense novel in the most unusual "police investigation" I've ever read. And it opens with the ultimate unreliable narrator: Detective Alisha ("Ali") Green, whose brain can't handle even the basics of daily memory as she struggles to recover from a brutal attack by a serial killer who'd left her for dead. Between the pain, the understandable alcohol abuse, and the broken transmissions in what used to be a fine mind, Ali can't even tell for sure what's in her thoughts and what she's shouting out in front of her former partner, Kevin. "My heart sank, though I made the best attempt I could at keeping the horror from my face. How much had I said out loud? And why did I not know the answer to that?"

Turns out that the psychopath who's more than ready to finish the job of killing her has been killing plenty of other women, and tormenting those he's left alive. Even his "friends" know he's dangerous. And in acute twists of action and emotion, Cameron makes clear their damage and risk, as at the moment when Annie, a presumed witness to the brutality, retreating to her safely locked up home, spots a still-wet mug next to her kitchen sink, one she never ever uses:
Annie took a breath and waited for her heart to start beating. And when it finally did, she slumped to the floor in the corner of the kitchen, and shuffled back into the crook of the wall, and drew her knees up to her chest, and listened to the kettle boil, and cried and cried and cried.
Making things more dangerous is the extreme lack of experience with which Ali and Kevin's superior officer tackles the multiple victims and the hunt for the killer. There are already two dead cops -- will Ali be the next? And you're not expecting good decisions from Ali and her broken brain, are you?

The special pleasure of DEAD GIRLS is Cameron's highly believable knotting of support ties among the damaged yet seriously angry women who tackle this case. I'd suggest putting this onto the summer reading stack, but really, if you get a copy now, dump all the dull chores of the next few days and just immerse. It's worth it, with rewards in every twist, including the finale.

From Park Row Books, a suspense imprint from Harlequin.

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

Memoir Worth Reading: The Girl Who Smiled Beads, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

There are so many interesting things to consider with THE GIRL WHO SMILED BEADS. The subtitle is "A Story of War and What Comes After," a good description. Author Clemantine Wamariya and her sister Claire survived six dangerous years mostly on their own in seven African countries, when their family of origin was shattered and dispersed by the Rwandan genocide. A refugee program finally brought them to the United States. And then their scraped-together survival was turned upside down by an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show Oprah, where the TV star gave the girl-turned-woman a stunning surprise: Oprah's team had located Clemantine's mother and surviving siblings and brought them to the show.

That's the center point of Wamariya's narrative in terms of time and change. But it's not the easy part and maybe not even the joyful part. Sorting out the horrors of the past, the damage of the present, and what to do within modern Western culture turn out to be both complicated and painful. PTSD? Sure. And more.

The narrative's management by distinguished co-author Elizabeth Weil -- a writer for the New York Times Magazine who's done this kind of co-authorship before -- turns what could have been a candy-sweet tale into a powerful exploration of culture, recovery, and determination. The book is an easy read in short chapters with abundant adventure, and solidly rewards the reader who follows the entire journey. It gave me a lot to think about, especially coupled with my spring plunge into Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, and more. Hope you have a chance to add it to your stack.

And don't miss Wamariya's website, for a startling look at what she's now pursuing.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Vivid Debut Thriller from Charlton Pettus, EXIT STRATEGY

If you'd asked me whether a career in songwriting could benefit the power of a debut thriller, I would have said "Hmm, sweet notion, but unlikely." And I would have been wrong. Charlton Pettus is best known for producing the group Tears for Fears, with which he plays lead guitar -- and scoring and writing songs for film and TV. Somehow he's tumbled to this new area, though ... thank goodness!

EXIT STRATEGY may be the top international thriller I've read so far in 2018. With its rapid pace, adept twists, and compelling protagonist, I couldn't put it down. Here's the premise:

Jordan Parrish, founder of a medical technology firm, might have made a mistake in moving from lab work to business. He adores his wife and kids, but his financial disaster is going to let them down, bigtime. Is there any way he can escape the shambles of his career and leave his family in better shape than if he stayed around? He takes the risk of placing a call to a company that specializes in such disappearances. Even though he hangs up quickly, the damage is done, and Jordan's life as he knows it has ended, just that fast.

But nothing's as it seems. His wife realizes, almost before he does. The answers she's getting about Jordan having a second household, a car accident, a disaster, just don't fit the man she loved, and who loved her so much. Meanwhile, Jordan's struggling to meet the demands of having gone into hiding. Somehow, his life is more at risk than ever before.

Yet at first, things seem about what you'd expect:
Leaving a couple euros on the table, Jordan walked to the restroom. He locked himself in a stall and opened the envelope. Inside was a round-trip coach ticket to Hong Kong along with a well-worn Croatian passport and a credit card. The credit card and passport were in the name Antonin Kramaric. He crumpled the envelope and threw it in the trash. He washed his hands and dabbed at his face with a wet paper towel. His nose still hurt like hell and his eyes burned. He gingerly took off the shades and studied his face in the mirror. Where the nose had been broken there was now a pronounced Roman dip. Also his eyes were now a little wider and subtly sloped down at the outside, giving him a vaguely morose Slavic look. The skin was still puffy and red at the corners where the lids had been cut and sutured. Taken with the short, short hair and the scruffy facial growth, the cumulative change was substantial. If a former colleague had passed him in the airport Jordan doubted he would have looked twice.
When the plot swerved into a code that I "caught" right away, with exhilaration, I knew I was in for a memorable ride. Loved it.

Tough and at times violent, but not gruesome and not sadistic, this is a classic thriller with excellent pacing. I found the ending a bit out of line with the rest of the book -- when you've read it, let me know your opinion. But all told, I think Hanover Square Press made a great pick with this one.


No author website at this time.

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

Brief Mention: John Copenhaver's Debut, DODGING AND BURNING

John Copenhaver's debut mystery, DODGING AND BURNING, came out in March. I've hesitated to present it here because I didn't care for the writing style -- heavy use of adverbs and a rhythm and rocking of tenses  that somehow bothered me -- but I think it's an important mystery in three ways:

1. It probes the fallout of World War II.

2. "Gay and lesbian" in a time much less welcoming than today gives it flavor.

3. In spite of my personal frustration with the writing style, it's got strength and power and I suspect Copenhaver will be writing good mysteries in years to come. So it's important to grab his debut for your shelf.

I also really like the title, which is a play on words between some criminal threats, and film-based photography speak.

Here's the jacket blurb, in case you're thinking this over:
A lurid crime scene photo of a beautiful woman arrives on mystery writer Bunny Prescott's doorstep with no return address―and it's not the first time she's seen it. The reemergence of the photo, taken fifty-five years earlier, sets her on a journey to reconstruct the vicious summer that changed her life.

In the summer of 1945, Ceola Bliss is a lonely twelve-year-old tomboy, mourning the loss of her brother, Robbie, who was declared missing in the Pacific. She tries to piece together his life by rereading his favorite pulp detective story “A Date with Death” and spending time with his best friend, Jay Greenwood, in Royal Oak, VA. One unforgettable August day, Jay leads Ceola and Bunny to a stretch of woods where he found a dead woman, but when they arrive, the body is gone. They soon discover a local woman named Lily Vellum is missing and begin to piece together the threads of her murder, starting with the photograph Jay took of her abandoned body.

As Ceola gets swept up playing girl detective, Bunny becomes increasingly skeptical of Jay’s story about the photograph and begins her own investigation into Lily’s murder. A series of clues lead her to Washington, DC, where she must confront the truth about her dear friend—a revelation that triggers a brutal confrontation that will change all of them forever.
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Brief Mention: Indie Self-Published "Pathologist" Mysteries from Jane Bennett Munro

Despite all the frustrations for a mystery author of "submitting" to commercial publishers, there are two important things that the process instills: Enough willingness to meet the genre's conventions of plot, suspense, character, and excellence in pace and twists so that a book will make it up and over that bar. And professional editing that demand that the author have a darned good reason for wandering astray or scattering abundant red herrings.

So the "indie" route is a tough one for most authors, and I want to mention the murder mysteries that Jane Bennett Munro is publishing. She's gaining awards for them (including an IPPY), and they're lively and well plotted. Puzzlingly, her fourth book featuring pathologist Toni Day -- DEATH BY AUTOPSY -- turned up in my mailbox recently. It dates back to 2014, so it's not exactly a new release. But I enjoyed the pathology language in it, and of course the premise: that the autopsy might be to blame for the final death of someone! Here's a snippet, from Toni Day's point of view:
My heart sank. Did the fractured sternum make that laceration, or did I? There were no other marks on the myocardium, so my needle puncture had to be somewhere in that bruised area.

"What's that?" Pete asked.

I took a deep breath and tried to appear calm. "It appears to be a laceration of the left ventricle."

"Is that where the bleeding came from?"

"More than likely." My voice trembled. "Photograph it. Just in case."
If the "pathology talk" appeals to you, you might indulge in one or two of Munro's books for your summer reading stack. Be reasonable -- settle in for a jaunt, and a bit of learning on how an independent author may opt to spin a story. I enjoyed this one, and it gave me a lot to think about.

(The author website is out of date and incomplete, but in case you want to peek: http://janebennettmunro.com.)

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

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Hot Thriller for the Summer Reading Stack, WARNING LIGHT by David Ricciardi

This spring's fine Middle East thriller from David Ricciardi has a publication story that's twisted suspense as well: The thriller author self-published his book WARNING LIGHT in 2014 -- then Penguin Random House picked it up, and the following re-edit created what the publishing firm calls a whole new book.

With the power and punch that the April 2018 release packs, I have to guess the earlier version was also intense (wouldn't it be fun to compare them?). I couldn't stop reading ... even in ebook format (my least favorite).

Here's the premise: A CIA desk office, an analyst, happens to be on a plane that gets diverted to a secret closed airport in Iran, where weapons are under construction. There's an actual field operative on the plane, who'd been meant to infiltrate the site -- but in the chaos of arriving, his cover is blown (and so is he).

So Zac Miller takes a couple of quick snapshots of the airport while debarking, to try to fill the information gap for the Agency. But he's not nearly as subtle as he thinks, is almost immediately caught by very unfriendly military types, yet with a bit of luck and guts, makes a narrow escape -- into, of course, the highly dangerous terrain of the Middle East, with the Iranians after him. Oh yes, and his own side, which swallows a clever Iranian frame-up suggesting Zac's gone rogue.

So begins a high-suspense survival trek through terrain that's unfriendly in every sense:
He paused atop a long scree field. Even in the mountains it was close to one hundred degrees and the heat seared his lungs as he struggled to catch his breath. His legs were sore, his ribs ached from the beating, and he hadn't seen any water. He sat atop the loose rocks and wondered how he would make it out of Iran alive.
Lee Child blurbed this book, which is appropriate, considering the well-structured pace of crises, collaboration, and gutsy survival maneuvers. And the ending is a real delight ... If you appreciate a page-turning thriller with on-the-ground detail and rapid twists, plus a character who grows "just enough" during his run for his life, grab this one. Put it in the summer reading stack -- or sooner! -- for pure release from life's ordinary stresses.

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



Tuesday, May 08, 2018

New Orleans Crime Fiction Rises Again, as Julie Smith Returns to Skip Langdon Series

Author Julie Smith's website says it's been 12 years since she last released a Skip Langdon crime novel. The series just came back to life, with MURDER ON MAGAZINE, released as an almost-self-published paperback and ebook via http://www.booksbnimble.com.

MURDER ON MAGAZINE picks up in New Orleans, putting Skip back onto her old familiar beat -- but with a very modern twist: the killing she's investigating took place via an "AirBnBad" short-term rental, and it's quickly clear that not only is the trend for these rentals ruining residential areas of the city; it's making it way, way too easy for pimps and prostitutes to operate under false ID in those spare-cash bedrooms.

Told from two viewpoints -- Skip's, and that of Cody, a half-child victim of sex trafficking who may also be a killer -- the action is quick and intense. After all, valuable prostitutes aren't readily released by the people who've "owned" them, and Cody's quick and cute but with those pink tips to her hair, sort of memorable; the hard-core criminals know how and where to find her. Of more concern, so might her last client, the "Whale." But with some tech support, Skip too is a force to reckon with. And Julie Smith allows time to get inside Skip's mind, as well as her dog-loving heart:
First Miguel's death and Lloyd's arrest, then, barely a day later, during her nice January "barbecue," Abasolo's phone call. Sometimes it seemed like one step backward for every step forward. The Whale was on the move.

Skip couldn't believe what she was looking at. Or rather, she didn't want to. She didn't even want to be a cop today. She wanted to walk time back and arrange to be out of the country so she wouldn't have to see this. Because it was ugly and terrifying and heralded so many more bad things she felt her throat close and nausea roil her stomach. ... It was obvious to both of them: the wannabe serial killer who'd first attacked the dog and then the pink-haired girl -- and probably killed Benjamin Solo -- had now achieved his goal. He'd embarked on a killing spree that wasn't going to stop until they got him.
If you've been longing for a new book from this seasoned New Orleans writer, here's a chance to get back to Skip Langdon -- and if you've never happened to read Smith's mysteries, well, as of the moment of writing this, two Skip Langdon stories were on the author's website as a free ebook. What a chance! Have fun, and enjoy the nostalgia.

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

The New Quaker Midwife Mystery from Edith Maxwell, TURNING THE TIDE


It's 1888 and the presidential election furor is heating up in Amesbury, Massachusetts. No surprise, then, that the skillful and strong-minded midwife Rose Carroll is prepared to join a protest on behalf of women getting the vote -- not in any offensive way, of course, but standing up with her friends, relatives, and especially other members of the Society of Friends, aka the Quakers.

Of course, any time Rose stands up publicly, her patients/clients worry whether she'll be on hand for their birth-related needs. And taking a stand for a "right" that wealthy men in the region may consider illegitimate can mar her carefully built reputation. Still, you know Rose ... or you do if you've been reading the excellent amateur sleuth series that Edith Maxwell provides as the Quaker Midwife Mysteries. The 2018 title is TURNING THE TIDE and it applies to a lot of the action, but especially to the force of public opinion. And that of Rose's mother-in-law to be,  who is not happy about the planned match for her son (Quakers are a step down socially!).

In the sturdy tradition of amateur sleuth mysteries, this time Rose sees an accusation of murder leveled against someone she suspects is innocent. Simple commitment to justice requires that she address herself to solving the crime, so the real criminal can pay the consequences instead.

I enjoyed the vibrant historical feel, as well as the many adept twists of plot here. Most of all, I appreciated the connection with Whittier, insight into the suffrage movement, and following Rose into the bedrooms of her ladies-in-labor. There's just enough suspense to keep the pages turning rapidly, yet nothing that would make me check the locks on the doors at night. A perfect balance!

Later this month (May 22), I'll share a book event with this very active author of three to four mystery series (at Water Street Books in Exeter, NH). The second book cover shown here relates to my own "Quaker connection" and part of what I'm eager to converse about with Edith Maxwell. If you're in the New England area, I hope you'll join us.

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

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Mass Killings, Cultural Collapse, or Just Murder ... in CULT X from Fuminori Nakamura

Japanese noir can finger the dark and dangerous side of urban life deftly -- a long-term slide from the twists of culture and despair that William Gibson's Neuromancer laid out for us in (the real) 1984. It's the obverse of the playful simplicity of manga's wide-eyed images. And because Japan's imperial drive toward domination remains bottled up inside today's imposed regimen of gun scarcity and forbidden military action, there's an aspect of sharpening blades for action that can be terrifying.

Fuminori Nakamura (the pen name of a Tokyo author) showed in The Gun his capacity for binding emotions around a small symbol until the pressure to act -- and act violently -- can't be restrained. In his newest novel, CULT X, set for release by Soho Press on May 22, he's chosen to probe an appalling moment of recent Japanese history: the 1995 sarin subway attack in Tokyo. That attack was the second to rip news headlines, preceded by the 1994 sarin poisoning that took place in Matsumoto City, Japan.

As in his earlier work, Nakamura moves toward the criminal actions in increments rooted in damaged lives.  Toru Narazaki can hardly believe it when he learns that the woman who disappeared from his life -- hinting at suicide -- has been seen alive. His desire to rediscover this woman, Ryoko Tachibana, pulls him out of his ordinary life, into exploration of what he thinks at first is a religious retreat group. The sleuth who's informed him that Ryoko is alive gives us a window into Narazaki's soul as he reflects that Narazaki "looked like he'd lost something he needed to go on living. Yet his gaze was terribly powerful, and had a strange radiance."

It's hunger and necessity gleaming at the surface of a life that's been ordinary until now. In fact, when Narazaki first visits the retreat building pointed out to him, and a middle-aged woman's voice inquires who he is, his reply is revelatory:
"My name's Toru Narazaki. I'm ... I'm not really anyone."
Although he's unaware of the force of his desire, Narazaki presses forward, trying to find Ryoko and make sense of her abrupt departure from his life. Long before he locates her, though, he's trapped in the power of his own longing for attention, sex, human contact in the most basic and childlike (although orgasmic) ways. His quest thus originates from almost pure physicality -- the exact opposite of what he'd imagined a religious process would involve.

It's not long before Narazaki realizes there are double undercurrents to what he's experiencing. On one hand, he's welcomed into a cult that's based in both philosophy and modern physics, with an engaging lecturer for its revered leader. And on the other, he's made himself into an ideal victim for the cult's enemies.

Sorting this into waves of external action, the book twists adeptly toward a horror-laden plot of mass destruction. Is Fuminori Nakamura suggesting that Japan's soul is a match to this protagonist's? I dread the notion, as the missing woman finally appears to greet the seeker, and Narazaki is intensely humiliated by the way she finds him:
When reality ultimately punctured one corner of his consciousness, the violence of his desires came rushing out. That's why I came here, Narazaki thought. To make my own real life seem like a fantasy. Out of contempt for my life ... No, contempt for the real world. But Narazaki couldn't say that to Tachibana. [...] Why am I like this? Why is my body like this? Narazaki's eyes began to tear up -- tears no one could sympathize with. Anger rose up to replace his embarrassment -- ugly, inappropriate anger.
Is that why the sarin poisonings took place? Out of an ugly anger rooted in abiding humiliation? In that case, what does the suspense here threaten, for all of us?

CULT X is a dark crime novel, published by Soho Crime (Soho Press). But it's also, like Nakamura's earlier books, a deliberate and painful fingering of old and new wounds. Horrifying, yes -- but worth confronting.

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

 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Detroit Crime Fiction Thrives with Jane Haseldine's Third, WORTH KILLING FOR

The full-page ads in major newspaper review sections promote established mystery authors where publishers take little risk. And that's why the crime fiction coming from Kensington isn't showing up in those splashy ads. But this New York publisher now has an overwhelming back list, and an impressive roster of new releases -- with some excellent authors lined up.

Jane Haseldine, who lives in California, worked the crime beat as a journalist (and held political positions) before she transitioned to crime fiction. She comes with life experience, as well as plenty of cold cases in mind. And in Detroit's variegated cityscape of wealth, poverty, empty districts, and uncertain infrastructure, she has the perfect terrain to explore both violence and corruption, those mainstays of dark suspense. Add to this the feisty and often emotional Julia Gooden, crime reporter and victim of the city's inner darkness, and the series leapt into intense action.

In this third book in the series, WORTH KILLING FOR, Julia Gooden would like to think her life is stable -- especially for the sake of her two young sons. Dating a police detective isn't making that stability easy, since she's always juggling the urge for an exclusive advance look at a crime (and her editor's pressure), with a necessary discretion about things she's not supposed to find out ahead of the other reporters.

But there are far worse complications possible, as Julia's past rises up to tear holes in her life, as her detective boyfriend admits he's checked out her long-absent father's record:
"I'm not sure if you knew this already, but your dad served some time."

"I know. I was five. Ben [her brother] told me Duke [their dad] was on a business trip so I wouldn't be upset. But one of the kids on our school bus, his dad was a prison guard and knew that my dad was locked up. The kid told everybody on the bus ride home one day about my dad being a convict, and Ben punched him in the nose. We had to walk the rest of the way because the bus driver kicked Ben off, and I wasn't going to stay on there without him."

"There's a note in your dad's file that he was affiliated with a man named Peter Jonti, a hood who served time at the same prison with Duke. Jonti was younger than your dad, but it looks like he was connected. I did a check, and Jonti got popped again recently, but he's out now and working at a sushi joint downtown ..."

Julia jotted the name of her father's former associate down in pen on the palm of her hand.

"I'll check him out," Julia said. There's one thing that keeps coming back to me about what went down in Sparrow. Before Jameson died, he said Duke took something that didn't belong to him, and when that happened, things got taken from him. He could've meant Ben. I'm certain of it."
That's an urgent problem to solve, because Julia's brother Ben is a cold case -- he's been missing since their childhood. And soon she's sure that Duke, their dad, is back in Detroit, using her as a lightning rod to attract danger while searching for some kind of treasure from the past.

Was Ben kidnapped to punish Duke? Or was his disappearance connected with other cold cases? Or both? Julia's haunted by the notion that Ben might still need to be found. But what she opts to do, and the stones she turns over, create a hazardous situation for her own children -- and add to the risks of her love life.

Great complications, rapid pacing, powerful twists, and the equally haunting terrain of Detroit itself make WORTH KILLING FOR well worth reading. Haseldine's on a roll -- her previous book, Duplicity, also whipped Julia Gooden's reporting life into sharp suspense. This is definitely a series to collect (and you don't need any ginormous newspaper ads to signal it, right?).

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

Sunday, April 15, 2018

To the Woods, the Woods -- for Horror and Crime, from J. P. Choquette and Jenny Milchman

I never used to carry "bear spray," aka heavy-duty pepper spray, into the woods with me. Bears in New England aren't interested in connecting with humans; sing loudly, or wear "bear bells," and they will move away before you're close enough to know you have company. Most other wildlife behavior is similar here (although nothing likes being stepped on). But the first time I realized a human was following me on those long lonely paths, I bolted to the camping supply store to buy a large personal spray canister.

So two books from my stack have struck a shivery chord of recognition for me recently. The first, which I was re-reading (it came out last fall), is J. P. Choquette's Vermont horror novel, SHADOW IN THE WOODS. It starts with a few hints about a Sasquatch and a disappearance, then fades to normal with Addie Preston's prep for a group hike with clients. Addie is a relatively new mental health counselor with an understandable crush on her older male colleague, Dr. O'Dell ("call me Dell"). And she's thrilled to be the second professional on an eco-therapy effort, taking four patients up into the mountains for overnight camping and new experiences of coping with their internal anger and fears.

But some of that anger is not so internal after all, and neither are the terrors, some of them perfectly rational as Addie realizes nobody has the skills to save her from even the ordinary perils of rain-washed trails, limited map skills, failed phone service ... and a quick run of injuries and losses turning the trip into a nightmare. Choquette (who has written sleuth fiction in the past but is on an exuberant roll with gothic-inspired suspense situations now) sets up the likely losses, and spins Addie into panic-stricken coping efforts. Some readers will wish the book were longer, with more room for Addie to face her own changes -- instead, it's a tight 248 pages of action and response, a good weekend read (as long as you're not planning an overnight trip up your mountain, right?).

Escalate that sense of dread and peril with the newest book from Jenny Milchman, WICKED RIVER, coming out May 1. This is her fourth, and she's ramped up the intensity and threat in every twist. Start with newlyweds Natalie and Doug Larson, headed for a back-country honeymoon in the Adirondacks. So what that there are six million often-roadless acres in front of them ... they have GPS, Doug has friends who may cross paths with them, and between their rugged vehicle and a new canoe, and Doug's massive expertise, everything should be fine.

Except there are people hiding in those forested acres who have no desire for company -- or if they do want Natalie and Doug to come see them, there are no valid exit plans that will succeed, once a wilderness psycho and a few criminal moves get woven into the journey.

I was so creeped out that I had to read this one in short bursts. And I bought a new canister of bear spray. Sinister? Yeah. And besides, Doug's injured, way too early in the intense adventure, and the two of them in many ways barely know each other. Of course, Natalie can push that thought aside:
You didn't question a bond like theirs just because things had gone horribly wrong. Look at what Doug had been willing to do for her when it came down to it. She didn't want to be out here without him. She didn't want to be anywhere without him.

Doug lowered himself onto the forest floor, gingerly positioning his arm. "I was trying to save you," he said mildly.

"Oh Doug," Natalie said. Tears stung her eyes, though there didn't seem to be enough of them to fall. "If you had died, I don't think I could have gone on without you." She said the words with more certainty than she'd spoken her vows just six days ago.
But Natalie's underlying unease isn't groundless; Doug has in fact compromised their safety, and she's nowhere near understanding what's ahead.

You'll want your own pepper spray after this one. You might want to schedule a practice session in the back yard, to be sure you're prepared.

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


Saturday, April 07, 2018

Shaping the Modern World, and Spy, in THE DARK CLOUDS SHINING from David Downing

The Cold War ended, and many Americans thought the America/Russia espionage dance ended around the same time. Readers of the espionage fiction of John Le Carré could be forgiven for believing it had wrapped up, devolved into some sort of economic tradecraft operated as much by Big Corporations as by the governments of what were once the world's major powers. Money seemed to be taking over, with China the economic power to try to understand. Like the end of Britain's colonial domination, it all seemed to come down to profits.

Then, presto! American elections are "messed with" by today's Russia. Understanding the motives and thinking of the massive nation on the other side of the globe suddenly matters in new ways. Pull up the curtain on a riveting drama -- and enhance it with David Downing.

Downing, whose recent espionage series are published by Soho Press (Soho Crime), came into his own in the "Station" series that he set during World War II in (mostly) Berlin, Germany, with protagonist John Russell trying to operate as a person of integrity during the Nazi years there. Then in 2013 he leapt back in time to World War I with the release of Jack of Spies -- the first in the Jack McColl series. Jolting thought it was for readers to change wars, continents, and protagonists, Downing made it clear that his understanding of the major shifts of the Great War provided yet another panoramic view of how forces of history shape the stage.

THE DARK CLOUDS SHINING is the fourth and final Jack McColl book (I wonder what war Downing will tackle next? hold that thought). This time the most important action and tensions take place in Bolshevik Russia, although from March 1921 to August 1921, McColl is swept across the Russian Revolution's effect and southward into the next revolution in action: that of Mahatma Ghandi leading India into rebellion against British overlords. There are shootings, betrayals, passionate lovemaking -- but most of all, Downing finds his "inner Russian" in this book, often pausing as his characters inhabit dingy apartments, train cars, and safe houses, to let them argue the right and wrong of their efforts.

At first the dark reflections occur mostly around Caitlin, McColl's lost love from the first book in the series; Caitlin's enmeshed in battling for women's rights and children's safety in this new Bolshevik world, working with the brilliant woman leader Kollontai at the Zhenotdel organization. Kollontai sees what Caitlin can't yet:
"Ever since the civil war ended, we've been in retreat. Oh, I know we've had victories -- the abortion law, the apprenticeships, the unveilings the other week -- but they're all things that don't cost money and don't inconvenience men. ... Things I thought we'd settled for good, we're having to fight for all over again. We're regressing, in more ways than one. ... In order to survive, we Bolsheviks have done some terrible things ... we must hold ourselves to a higher standard, if we want to save our revolution. If we don't, then heaven help Russia."

"We must fight each battle as it comes," Caitlin said, more to herself than her friend.
This dark sense of realization will eventually free Caitlin to make frightening personal choices, as an M-Cheka officer, Komarov, takes control of her life and moves her back into contact with Jack McColl. Whether it's arguing with a political opposite number or testing McColl's allegiance to Britain, to the best of Russia, and to her, Caitlin takes the measure of what's right.

McColl is less likely to vacillate: He's operating under specific orders to stop a possible international disaster, while trying to also "hide in plain sight" as Komarov takes over his life, too. In Komarov, the author updates Russian philosophy and literary wisdom, as the slightly inebriated -- but canny -- Russian secret service officer reveals his soul (or the part of it he's willing to share) to Jack McColl:
"In my first year as an investigator, I was jut a problem solver, and quite a good one, if I say so myself. But if that's all a city policeman does, he ends up holding his nose There are no men better placed to understand society than those that police it and no men more wary of radical change, because they know they'll be in the front line when the bombs and bullets start flying. Which is one of the reasons policemen drink a lot," he added, tipping back the glass of vodka.
These meditations darken and deepen the crisis that McColl must manage (while appearing to "be managed"). Downing is so skillful in his pacing that although perhaps a quarter of this 368-page action novel is spent in such conversations, there's never a sense of drag. The espionage, difficult choices, and knife-edge balance of whether Caitlin and McColl will ever reconcile keep the suspense taut and the twists powerful.

Can you read this without reading the rest of the series first? Sure. In a sense, by spacing the titles a year apart, Downing almost forces that sense onto readers. But if you can make time, I'd recommend reading straight through the four Jack McColl books, to appreciate the buildup of costs that Downing presents.

And although you may not want to directly apply McColl's choices to world politics a neat century later, you'll surely come away with a better grasp of Putin's background and sense of pride and entitlement. As Jack Kennedy (a highly uneven yet brilliant past American president) pointed out half a century ago, understanding both our allies and our enemies as people is essential for our own survival.

David Downing's masterful "Russian Revolution" sequence is a great way to get started.

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


Friday, April 06, 2018

Yummy Debut for a New Series from Denise Swanson, TART OF DARKNESS

I'm late discovering Denise Swanson -- her mysteries are already well known, and she's written many! Last September she released the first in a new series, "Welcome Back to Scumble River," jump-starting an existing run of books but with fresh energy (the first title was Dead in the Water).

Now she's started a second (!) new series, and this one is has many yummy moments. The series is called "Chef to Go" and it opens with TART OF DARKNESS. Count on Swanson, a true pro in the "amateur sleuth" mystery genre, to keep the red herrings splashing and suspenseful twists multiplying. In the classic mode of, say, an Agatha Christie mystery, the tension for the entrepreneur Dani Sloan is steady from the start, but not creepy in any sense ... you won't need to check that you locked the door, or turn on extra lights. Instead, with Dani, readers can chase the clues and try to figure the killer a few heartbeats ahead of Dani's own discovery.

The opening situation fits plenty of daring young entrepreneurs today: Dani's quit her corporate job, lucked into an inherited house practically perfect for a cooking-related business, and scraped up just enough money to get her catering business launched. Except it's a bit short after all, so when three young women attending the nearby college propose to bunk in her spare rooms, contribute rent, and provide kitchen and house maintenance labor, Dani's got an ideal solution. If, of course, the "girls" behave.

She's not much older than they are, but with collaboration from one of their uncles -- a charming unmarried security pro on the campus -- things seem to be working out.

That is, until her first major catering job, for a wealthy and spoiled young woman the same age as her boarders, Regina Bourne, turns dangerous, when a drunk knocks over a bamboo torch and lights the buffet table coverings on fire:
Dani's pulse raced, and for an instant, she froze as the dried grass fiber blazed. Then instinct kicked in and she dropped to her knees. Searching under the table for the fire extinguisher she kept handy anytime she used Sterno to keep the food in her chafing dishes warm, she nearly cried in releif when her fingers brushed the metal canister.

Yelling for everyone to stay back, Dani held her breath and sprayed the flames until the foam ran out. Shakily, she put the extinguisher down and sucked air into her starving lungs.

Before she could catch her breath, Regina marched up to her and demanded, "Clear off this table, and get new trays of desserts out here right now."

Dani blinked. She'd been expecting Regina to thank her, not issue impossible orders.
But that's Regina's way -- so when Regina turns up murdered, there are plenty of suspects with motive to sort through. And Dani needs to make sure the crime is quickly solved, before word of mouth and mean rumors can take away her barely opened business in the community.

It's a pleasure to ride along with Swanson's tight plot and smooth writing, with a side plot (of course) of mild romance. She's a truly skilled mystery author, and the suspense rises just high enough to make the pages turn quickly, while avoiding anything truly gruesome. I enjoyed every page -- and by my favorite test of a book, the number of people I'd like to give a copy to, this gets a very high score!

Sourcebooks Landmark is the publisher, and knowing this is the start of a series makes the slight awkwardness at the end into a promise of plot twists to come in the second title. I'm marking the series as "get the next one ASAP." By the way, there are no recipes included -- something of a surprise for a "foodie" mystery -- but there are plenty on Swanson's website.

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

Monday, March 26, 2018

"Tween" Mystery from Cindy Callaghan, SYDNEY MACKENZIE KNOCKS 'EM DEAD

You've got a young reader in mind, and you reach for a Nancy Drew book from the shelf -- take a moment to recall her "roadster" car, her rather tame boyfriend, the lack of moral crises in her investigations ... and you put the book back, feeling like you've just exposed your own age to yourself. It's nothing wrong with that series; it's just that, well, you know the reader you have in mind is a very modern kid, whose daily frustrations include cell service and figuring out what's bad about certain websites, as well as the usual perils of middle school life, homework, best friends ("forever"), and parents. Sigh.

Take heart. Cindy Callaghan writes for "tweens" -- those wonderful preadolescent kids still full of energy and willing to accept an occasional gift from a loving parent (don't even try to figure out the teen years that lie ahead, you'll "get" them when your reader gets there). Callaghan's books involve a lot of girls, but the boys in them are by turns smart and goofy and if your reader is a boy, he'll have enough to relate to (as well as learning to relate to, yeah, Sydney Mackenzie herself). Grab a few.

I'm happy about SYDNEY MACKENZIE KNOCKS 'EM DEAD. Start of what looks like a fresh series, it features Sydney herself, arriving in despair from her California film-adoring life to the property her folks have inherited (and rapidly moved to) in small-town Delaware. It comes complete with a cemetery, and an occupation: Sydney's parents have just inherited the business of funerals and burying, as well as the "graveyard" itself, comfortably named Lay to Rest.

As Sydney struggles to remain a cool California girl (her heeled boots are not doing too well in snow though) and to figure out who the right kids are to befriend in the new school, she's hyper worried that her spooky, death-related family property will doom her social life. She might be wrong about that ...

I was glad to find a subplot, really well done, of probing a bit of local history regarding the Underground Railroad. And a curse. And a ghost.

Lucky you, to be able to give this to the kids you want to tease into adventurous reading!

There are two small but significant mistakes in the book, and Callaghan offers this advice for dealing with them: "Note from author:  Try as we all might to be diligent editors, sometimes mistakes sneaks by.  To prevent any spoilers, I'll like to just ask the reader to please substitute  the date 1862 for 1825.  The publisher is aware and if fixing this for subsequent print runs." Of course you can ink the dates in yourself, as you "pre-read" the book for your younger reader, right? Oh, one more quick note -- the paperback version just came out a few weeks ago. Again, aren't you lucky?

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