Sunday, October 21, 2018

Vivid New Crime Fiction from Martin Limón, THE LINE (Korea, the Suenõ and Bascom Series)

There are plenty of good mysteries around, in this season -- but the really masterful ones, the ones written by a gifted storyteller who keeps you in another time, place, and person without stumbling, those are rare. And such a gift!

So I dove hopefully into the new George Sueño and Ernie Bascom investigation from Martin Limón and Soho Press, THE LINE, and sure enough, I didn't come up for much else until I reached the end of the book. Although Limón's series starters are very exciting (Jade Lady Burning, Slicky Boys, Buddha's Money), this 13th title (14th if you count the short story collection) may well be the very best.

Sueño and Bascom are criminal investigators for the US Army in Korea in the 1970s, the heyday of tension along the line dividing the significant Asian nation, and a time when most Americans abroad still performed the "our country's way better than yours" routine. In fact, George Sueño stands out in the Army because he's taken time to learn Korean, both spoke and written, which makes him a far better investigator. On the other hand, his partner in crime-solving, Ernie Bascom, "gets" the Korean culture, and together the pair is almost fearless.

Which they're going to need especially this time, because "the line" that divides Korea from (at the time) Communist North Korea is the site of a murder the pair should investigate. But their arrival on scene at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) bristles with weapons and antagonism from both sides, and the investigators are stranded in between, in every sense. Soon, as anyone in their shoes could have predicted, even their superior officers opt to blame them for the friction and possible outbreak of hostilities resulting.
Colonel Brace stood up. "That'll be just about enough out of you." He stuck his finger about a foot from Ernie's nose. "You will not investigate this matter further. Is that clear?"

Ernie didn't answer.

"Is that clear?"

Finally, Ernie relented. Even he know that the hammer of the US Army smashed whatever it hit completely flat. He'd seen the splatter often enough.

"Yes, sir," Ernie replied sullenly. "It's clear."
Still, that won't stop the action -- they'll just have to figure a way to investigate "something else" that will circle around toward the information they want. Fortunately (so to speak), a missing officer's wife gives the two investigators a reason to return to the scene, this time in a dive bar near "the line." George is narrating:
Her name was Ai-suk. Love-Chastity. When I asked for her family name, she clammed up. Apparently, that was too many questions too fast. She was a cocktail waitress at the Lucky Seven. ...

Her eyes widened. "You dingy dingy?"

"No," I replied. "I'm not crazy."

"Paju-ri woman no can love GI," she replied, suddenly serious. "GI come. GI go. Always count days until go back Stateside. Go back wife. Go back girlfriend. Paju woman just make GI happy." She fluttered her fingers like a bird taking flight. "Then he go."

"What do you get in return?" I asked.

Her eyes widened once again. She was debating whether I was making fun of her. Apparently, she realized that I wasn't, so she answered seriously, "What Paju-ri woman get is we get to live."
Because George and Ernie take even these bar girls seriously and kindly, their case builds strength, one revelation at a time. And because Korean crime at the time came knotted together as a network, and the pair have exchanged favors with the Korean National Police, it will be possible to work on both their crime scenes at once -- most of the time, and with acceptable risk. Well, maybe not so acceptable.

Long-time fans of the series will enjoy appearances from "Strange," and Inspector "Kill," and scenes when the investigators go under cover in their blue jeans, sneakers, and nylon jackets embroidered with fire-breathing dragons. And oh yes, ID and firearms. Big money's at stake in both crimes.

Limón's expert plot twists and the heart-deep (if sometimes clumsy) generosity of the "good guys" here make for yet another excellent crime novel. If I were headed for a desert island -- or a Vermont winter --- I'd want this book in my backpack. And the other 13. No need to read the earlier ones before plunging into THE LINE, but be ready to start scrounging for them afterward, for the sheer pleasure of exploring this series in all its details and delight.  Release date, October 23.

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

[Or if you're just interested in more from this author: click this one.]

Monday, October 15, 2018

Strong British "Father Anselm Thriller" from William Brodrick, THE SILENT ONES

Some British mysteries might get stranded on the other side of the Atlantic, if it weren't for the sturdy persistence of The Overlook Press, hauling them over "the pond." The newest to savor, with a US publication date of October 16, is THE SILENT ONES by William Brodrick. What an excellent read!

Brodrick won acclaim with his 1999 opening of the Father Anselm series, The Sixth Lamentaion, and took a Crime Writers' Assocaition (CWA) Golden Dagger Award for A Whispered Name. The newest in the series via Overlook, THE SILENT ONES, came out in 2015 in Britain -- alas for the 3-year wait! But now it's here ...

It's hard to write about The Church these days without confronting the specter of child sexual abuse. And that's what Father Anselm knows he'll have to look into when he's assigned to trace the missing Father Littlemore, a member of an order of monastics that is distant from his own Larkwood Priory community. He'll have to head for London and leave the treasured silence of the Priory, and leave his beehives. But an order is an order (double meaning intended), and sometimes silence must be sacrificed.

To Father Anselm's shock (and near despair), once the missing man is "located," he wants Father Anselm -- a former barrister himself -- for his legal representative. But Father Littlemore won't speak in his own defense. And the facts of the matter are far from clear:
R v. Littlemore  opened in Court Twelve at the Old Bailey on a Thursday in the first week of August. It was a warm day with clouds drifting carelessly across a cobalt sky. A crowd had gathered in the street behind a row of grey metal barriers. Police officers in fluorescent jackets stood on the pavement, keeping the entrance clear. Seeing the gathering as he approached on foot from Ludgate, Anselm lowered his gaze. For months he'd lived in dread of this moment. Now that it was upon him he wanted to turn around and go back to Larkwood; to deal with his bees and the other simple obligations of a quiet life. The clouds were drifting there, too. Bede's parting words rang hoarsely in his ears:

'Find out what really happened . . .'
Despite the "newsworthy" side of the proposed crime, THE SILENT ONES is actually a traditional mystery, well framed, salted with a slow accretion of clues, and paced with enough room to enjoy the atmospherics. Plus it tenderly probes the forms of affection and loyalty that grow within a monastic community -- as well as the frictions and sometimes cruel words.

Pick up a copy if you treasure the genre of English justice mysteries; if you enjoy peeking behind the scenes among clerics (Father Brown lovers, grab two copies); and if you value an author who can write of affection in a way that warms your heart and gets you ready for a better week ahead.

One small caution: As usual with Brodrick's books, the first few chapters can be a bit choppy (overworked, perhaps?). Slide on through and enjoy the rest of the book. I did.

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Diversion: Northeast Kingdom Poetry from Judith Janoo, January 2019

I just got word that Judith Janoo's very place-based poetry collection AFTER EFFECTS will be published in January, by Finishing Line Press. I wish I had it already, since there's an amazing poem on stacking wood in there, and this brisk weather has me thinking fondly of woodpiles past.

But more than the seasons and scents of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, Janoo's collection tenderly pulls open the sheathing around our family intimacies: how we live with each other and manage to still like and love, despite winter's incursions that shorten tempers, limit tolerance for "one more hard thing," keep us enclosed together more often than we may wish to be. Piling details in neat stacks, this poet paints a world -- one that is hers, but that we also may recognize is closely related to ours. Say, first cousins. Or step-siblings. Or neighbors.

I'll put just a taste of the woodpile poem here -- and you can already pre-order the book, in case you don't trust your memory to hold onto this all the way to January's deep snows.

From "Stacking Wood":

The first row on pallets for airflow,
coarse, split, no two wedges
the same, but fitted
between two rock maples,
bookends against the drop of light
and months ahead when
it feels like it’s all
coming down.

Smell of moss,
pepper, feel of leather,
splinters of sand.
Alone stacking bones
to last out the cold.

See the entire poem on this poet's website:

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Classic Village Mystery Turns Dark and Irish, with Andrea Carter's Debut, DEATH AT WHITEWATER CHURCH

Sometimes a review runs later than the release date -- just because life gets hectic. And that's the case here for Andrea Carter's stunning debut crime novel DEATH AT WHITEWATER CHURCH (Oceanview Publishing). The US edition came out a few weeks ago, and it's well worth grabbing a copy. Despite being a debut, the book from this barrister-turned-novelist took laurels at the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair, and is tautly plotted and a great new twist on the traditional village mystery.

When solicitor Benedicta ("Ben") O'Keefe tags along on a last-minute check of an old church being sold, the last thing she expects is a set of bones, wrapped tenderly in a blanket, in a crypt that hadn't been on the property map. Looks like the sale may not consummate. Meanwhile, along the coast of Inishowen, "everyone" expects the bones are proof of murder -- of a missing bridegroom from six years earlier. After all, who else could it be?

But soon there's another death in the village, and like any good Irish complication, it looks like a political twist underneath, one that may have its source in Ireland's terrible grief-stricken history. Or could it be just the results of the usual drinking and grieving? Ben's in the midst of it all, as a friend and neighbor as well as lawyer, and nothing seems straightforward:
"Well, what's happened?" I prompted.

Molloy took a sip of his coffee and leaned back, shaking his head as if in disbelief at what he was about to say.

"It looks as if we won't be opening a murder investigation in relation to the bones in the crypt, after all."

"How come?" I asked. "Last time I was talking to you, there was still no cause of death."

"That wasn't entirely true," Molloy admitted. "We'd established that the body had head injuries and a broken neck, which were probably the cause of death. We now know they were fatal injuries incurred as a result of a car accident."

I was confused. That sounded uncannily like Danny Devitt's injuries and circumstances of death. 
It's no coincidence. And Ben's effort to keep up with what the investigation reveals will turn inside out a lot of her relationships with what she thinks she knows about her home and her friends.

Carter's debut has already been followed by two more crime novels, and it's tempting to try to order them from across the Atlantic, since it will be a while until they arrive in "the States." Meanwhile, here's DEATH AT WHITEWATER CHURCH to savor -- an up-to-date and sophisticated re-braiding of what Agatha Christie did so well. My only wish would be to find more depth in Ben O'Keefe -- but maybe the sequels will satisfy that hunger. I hope so!

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

Taipei Night Market (Crime) Novel 3, 99 WAYS TO DIE, Ed Lin

The next "Taipei Night Market" novel, 99 WAYS TO DIE, comes out from Ed Lin and Soho Crime on October 9 -- and it's worth pre-ordering it now, to line up a reading session of enjoyment, lively suspense, and a taste of another world's other world.

Jing-nan, an amiable young man with a strong business drive, runs his dynamic and carefully balanced food stand in a sort of late-hours-only food court in Taipei, Taiwan. He's dead serious about the quality of food he serves, and ponders ways to add interest and excitement to the menu without losing the solid "Yelp" type following he already has among American tourists. His thinking on creating a vegetarian item from a new kind of fruit he finds on sale is downright intriguing (it almost sent me to the kitchen).

But what really counts with Jing-nan is loyalty to his friends. Even when his life is in danger.

So when his former classmate Peggy Lee phones him in tears, even though he has customers queuing at the stand, he's there for her -- although it's hard to understand what's up, between her sobs and the fact that her powerful father (who happens to be Jing-nan's landlord) could not possibly be the victim of a crime. Could he? Fortunately, the two other worked in the stand -- whose ethnicity will soon be significant! -- pick up on the crisis and give Jing-nan room to listen.
I fully turned my attention back to my old classmate. Her sobs had decreased in volume and frequency. Maybe she could talk now.

"Peggy," I said as I looked to the wall. "I want to make sure I heard you right. You said your father was kidnapped?"

"Yes," she managed to say. Peggy Lee, who would be nonchalant while standing on a cliff that was crumbling beneath her feet, was having difficulty verbalizing a single syllable. She must love her father more than anything.
And that, actually, could be a problem for Jing-nan if he gives in and tackles trying to rescue Peggy Lee's dad ... because no matter the risks involved, Peggy will feel they are justified, and won't care if Jing-nan's injured or killed in the process!

Fortunately, Jing-nan's girlfriend Nancy offers some counterweight to this tendency of Peggy's. But the kidnapping turns out to involve gangs, money, business ... and the politics of Taiwan, which holds a very uncomfortable position in terms of mainland China. And oh yes, since it's Peggy Lee's family at stake, this will be a media circus as well.

Lin's plotting has tightened over his career, and he's now adept in twisting his crime fiction in marvelous ways that incorporate almost as much humor (in mystery, we call it "capers") as the master Donald E. Westlake -- while winding into the plot the tensions of native, aboriginal, mainland, island, in lively and quickly grasped strands of added tension. Best of all are his characters: I wished Jing-nan and Nancy lived a lot closer (although I don't think I'd want to have a lot to do with Jing-nan's employees, whose skills extend beyond the kitchen in somewhat scary ways).

I enjoyed book 2 in this series, Incensed, almost as much. Although there's no need to read the earlier books before 99 WAYS TO DIE, it's a lot of fun to catch up with Lin's narratives, and I think I'll add number 1, Ghost Month, to my shelf, for the pleasure of such good reading.

Published by Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press, which continues to gather great additions to international crime fiction.

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

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Kjell Ola Dahl's Norwegian "Gunnarstranda" Police Mysteries Continue

It’s twenty-four degrees below zero in Oslo, Norway, as police detective Lena Stigersand watches a corpse being pulled from the harbor, in contrast to the Christmas decorations around the market area. A crane hauls the body from the water: “The dead man rose higher and rotated in the air. The lapels of his jacket hung like heavy pennants. Water dripped and immediately froze into icicles on this clothes. … The water on the dead man’s face froze to ice as they watched.”

Lena’s quickly aware that this is a suspicious death, with the body identified right away but the clothing and alcohol-free stomach contents denying the proposal that it could be a suicide. Yet who would want to kill Sveinung Adeler, a relatively minor political aide?

When a journalist steps into Lena’s life, seducing her with both hot sex and hints about the dead man’s significance, things look promising: She’s feeling great about herself and she has more to add at the department meetings. Her colleague, Detective Gunnarstranda, is working on another death that looks at first like suicide, where a homeless woman’s run over by a train after leaping in front of it. When the two deaths, and then a third, show signs of being linked, the detectives must negotiate the perils of governmental interference, including a member of Parliament whose staff bites with powerful teeth.

Lena’s path is the more compelling in THE ICE SWIMMER, as she’s handling (badly) a medical diagnosis that puts her way off balance in a very recognizable way, so her errors of judgment in the investigation make perfect sense. Meanwhile, Gunnarstranda’s pursuit of the criminal behind the deaths is suspenseful and dangerous:
Gunnarstranda got up. The shadow slipped through. Gunnarstranda went after it, through the door opening. … He was standing on the edge of a sheer drop. A square hole in the floor.

He gasped as his hands groped for something to hold on to. They found nothing, but he regained his balance.

A vibration made him step back two paces without his knowing why. A crash made him start. A concrete block had landed where he had just been standing. It smashed into pieces and sprayed his face with bits of cement and gravel.

… At that moment he received a violent push and fell. He broke his fall with his hands and grazed both palms. Someone jumped over him and ran down the stairs.
Regular readers of Nordic noir may recognize Gunnarstranda as one of the two noted detectives in Kjell Ola Dahl’s Faithless, and this is the sequel, second in Dahl’s popular “Oslo Detectives” series, finally being translated and brought across the Atlantic. The translator, Don Bartlett, also works with material by Jo Nesbø and Gunnar Staalesen (the Varg Veum crime novels), and provides a smooth text that’s only slightly “foreign” in feel (more a question of the “music” of the phrasing; nothing awkward). Inspector Frank Frølich is absent from this second title in the series, except for a short visit that Gunnarstranda makes to tap his expertise. Hard to say what will follow, but it would be great if these all returned in book three in a year or so.

Although the crimes and their locations are dark, Dahl’s detectives arrive with force of character and are willing to share a bit of wisdom with each other. That’s lucky for Lena in this case, because a police detective going to bed with a journalist hints at disaster to follow, and she’s far from immune.

Well written, quickly paced, Dahl’s series fits the traditional police detective model (think Michael Connelly, and Karen Slaughter), including the hint of despair that a high-alcohol profession brings along. Good reading, and all the plot threads fit together by the end, although there’s a rather odd postscript chapter to pick up the last bit. But perhaps it’s also to lay the start for the book that comes next.

From Orenda Books, which continues to bring solid translations across the Atlantic. 

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

"Wicked Game" Trilogy from Matthew Farrell Wraps Up in END GAME

Matt Johnson’s “Wicked Game” trilogy began with Wicked Game, then Deadly Game, and now wraps up in End Game. A complicated mix of police procedural and antiterrorism thriller, the book is a must-read for those who’ve devoured the first two titles.

This British trilogy as a whole is based loosely on Johnson’s own career, first as a soldier, then in the Metropolitan Police for 25 years, and present at such hot-news events as the London Baltic Exchange in 1993, the Regent’s Park bombing in 1982, and a 1983 shooting at the Libyan Police Bureau—followed in 1999 by a discharge from the police to enable treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As his self-introduction admits, “Hidden wounds took their toll.”

Much of End Game unfolds from the point of view of Inspector Bob Finlay, whose hoped-for promotion just hit the skids, probably due to both his own case of PTSD (already treated) and actions he took the previous year that look questionable to some other officers. Long ago trained in hostage negotiation, Finlay responds to a call that’s specific to him, as a police constable who’s flipped out and barricaded with a hostage asks for Finlay by name. It turns out they have experiences in common, and Finlay is highly successful in ending the standoff. But in the process, he bucks the orders of a vicious and unforgiving superintendent from the “Met” Complaint Investigation Branch. And now it’s Finlay who’s in trouble.

Many segments of End Game are enormously appealing. For instance, there’s Finlay’s effort to reassure his wife, by filling her in (after their little daughters are in bed) on what’s taken place:
I wasn’t sure where to start and, to begin with I didn’t make a lot of sense. But the more we talked, the more focused the conversation became. Jenny listened as I talked, asked questions and joined in with ideas and suggestions when I seemed to be either stuck for the right words or lacking the means to describe how I felt. …

‘We need you back, Robert,’ Jenny then said unexpectedly, as she pulled away. ‘Looking after your girls.’

I was confused. ‘I’ve not been anywhere.’

‘Not in the physical sense, no. But you’ve been away in a different world, especially over the last couple of days. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spoken to you and you haven’t even heard me.’

... ‘Kevin’s in trouble, Jen. If what I’m saying is right, somebody has fitted him up.’
 Can Finlay manage his increasing emotional distress over the case and the frame-up he sees taking place, and avoid becoming the scapegoat? The suspense is strong, and the scenes memorable.

On the other hand, Johnson narrates through multiple points of view, including that of the criminals, a difficult routine to pull off. As a result, readers often know what’s around the corner, what’s going to hit Finlay next. It’s an awkward strategy and doesn’t work well, distracting from the plot and its twists. There’s a terrorist (Arab) plot involved, as well as complications of British/UK law enforcement and malicious political maneuvers. A stronger book would have relied more on Finlay’s own growth, and less on the often jerky changes of viewpoint.

End Game will appeal most to those already enmeshed in the earlier volumes of the trilogy, and for those collecting terrorism plots. James Patterson readers may find it a good fit. But it won’t fit well for those who prefer a crime novel where the pace is more determined by the characters and their motives for investigation and growth, as in some of the Michael Connelly Bosch books; Finlay’s also not as driven or as generous as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, and the suspense doesn’t rise the way Lisa Gardner would paint it. Dan Brown fans, however, may wish to add this to the shelf of “to be read” for the season. [From Orenda Books]

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

Debut Crime Novel from Matthew Farrell, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, in Philly

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Matthew Farrell’s debut crime novel What Have You Done opens in Philadelphia, rich with the details he absorbed growing up in a police officer’s family. It begins with Liam Dwyer, who is a police forensics specialist, not a police officer or detective—so he shouldn’t get seriously disciplined for being hungover on one challenging morning, right?

The problem is, he’s not just hung over—he’s clueless about what he did the night before, how he got home, and where his clothes are, as well as why he has a scrape down his chest. Called out to respond to the mutilated body of a woman found hanging in a seedy motel in the “city of brotherly love,” he’s plunged into a nightmare that may not let him go: not only does the crime scene include an item from his just-before-waking nightmare about a day he nearly drowned, but it turns out the murdered woman is someone from his own past.

It’s totally reasonable for Liam’s next move to be phoning his brother Sean, who actually is on the police force, as a homicide detective.
Sean leaned against the wall and ran a hand through his hair. ‘Do you know what happened? Can you tell from the scene?’

‘She’s strung up like some animal. Hanged and cut open.’

… Liam sniffled on the other end and took another deep breath. ‘There was a bouquet of paper flowers at her feet. Just like the ones Mom used to make. And her hair was all chopped up. Like Mom did to herself that day. It’s freaking me out. Just get down here.’
And Sean will be on the scene ASAP. It’s not the first time he’s stepped up to rescue Liam, but this time there’s no guarantee, as the evidence mounts up, that Liam can avoid being tagged as the murderer.

Farrell skips back and forth between the brothers’ points of view as Liam struggles to combat the evidence, then to run from arrest. Heavy in strings of dialogue, and without a lot of character development, the plot depends on the race against a final box of accusation that could wipe Liam out.

There are some twists ahead, all of which are knotted into the relationship Liam has with his wife—and the marriage he’s struggling to save, after his affair with the dead woman had ended. The final untying of the knot is a bit obvious, and won’t challenge “reader detectives” much. But the action pace is sound, and those familiar with the Philly region may appreciate the bar and police scenes as they add up.

This is Farrell’s first crime novel, and despite its promising opening, it’s not strong enough to recommend for those already savvy in the genre. On the other hand, if you’re collecting Philadelphia mysteries, add this one to the shelf. And keep an eye out for Farrell’s future work, which may build on his experience in What Have You Done.

[From Thomas & Mercer]

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

Ever Call an Uber? Nic Joseph's THE NIGHT IN QUESTION Changes Everything

Telling what happened when you're in the middle of it -- that's what makes it so hard when you're the victim of a crime. And Paula, driver for a car service in her "spare time" (basically, a full-time second job), might be one of the victims in THE NIGHT IN QUESTION.

Or, judging by what she's saying to the investigating detective, she might just like minding other people's business -- she's there to inform on someone she delivered to a crime scene.

Then again: Could she have played a more active role in the tragedy?

Nic Joseph's second thriller (after Boy. 9, Missing) zips in and out of times, situations, points of view. It's confusing and scary -- especially from Paula's point of view. Chronically short on sleep, desperately aware that she'll never make enough money to afford possible treatment for her husband's below-waist paralysis, mixed up about how she's fallen into a groupie role with a famous singer she'd barely known about, Ryan Hooks ... she's the most unreliable of narrators, even when she's trying hard to sort out what actually took place and how drunk she may have been. Most of all, she's in the process of realizing, thanks to her girlfriend's insight, that she's a witness to what Ryan's done off stage:
I hadn't made it up.

I wasn't delusional.

Ryan Hooks had been in my car.

"I can't believe it," Vanessa hissed as she seemingly came to the same conclusion. "It really was him! And you saw him cheating on Tiffane." She paused for a moment and then raised her eyebrows. "What are you going to do?"
Because Ryan Hooks, superstar, left his cellphone in Paula's car. Not only is that something she might return to him -- she maybe could get a reward. Not just for the phone, but for the evidence on it.

And that's how Paula steps into the scary lane of life.

It takes some patience to read THE NIGHT IN QUESTION because of the sudden and frequent shifts of point of view and timeline. But the concept of a crime that begins in a ride service is blazingly on time, and the final twists show how skilled Joseph is with plot. I wish she'd been a bit deeper on character for this one -- I never decided whether I liked Paula, actually -- but I couldn't put the book down.

Then again, I may never again be willing to try a ride service.

[Published by Sourcebooks, released this week.]

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Strong "Traditional" Espionage Adventure from James Rayburn, THE TRUTH ITSELF

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

What happens to a CIA agent who turns whistleblower on her own colleagues? Kate Smith, hiding in Vermont with her young daughter Suzie, knows the price: an international-level death threat on her head and her daughter’s, and trying to live an unassuming single-mom’s life while her daughter goes to school in an ordinary small town. Way, way, under the radar.

Braced for revenge from the man whose power she’d diminished by “squealing,” Kate’s always been ready to run again. Spurred to escape by an accident instead—an invasion of her daughter’s elementary school by a pair of teenage shooters, which Kate takes action to stop—she’s suddenly made visible to Lucien Benway, who’s ready track her down. Oh, she’s still got those skills from being an agent in the field, as she’s just shown with the invading teens:

“Then she was dropping the Bushmaster and reaching in for her daughter, hauling her out the window and finding a crazy strength that allowed her to hold her child close as she sprinted through the snow, driving her legs, lifting her knees, feeling the burn of the cold in her lungs. She raced for her car, hearing the wail of the sirens bearing down on them, knowing she had no more than a minute to get to the Jeep and get away.”

Yes, Kate’s strong and driven, but in James Rayburn’s spy thriller, The Truth Itself, it’s clear that those skills aren’t enough to carve out a permanent escape from Benway and his associates. Let’s face it, they have the same skills, and they’re not subject to international pursuit. So Kate’s effort to track down a famous spy-arena “fixer” of the past makes perfect sense: Only someone like Harry Hook, now hiding from disgrace in a tropical paradise, may be able to end Kate’s life of running and ensure that Suzie can grown up in safety.

Rayburn sets up the book as a race against time, Kate and her team versus Benway and his. The highly effective page-turning speaks to Rayburn’s earlier career as a South African filmmaker (under the name Roger Smith; Rayburn is a pen name), which he followed first with writing crime fiction set in Cape Town. His leap to spy fiction may be unexpected, but his very public Twitter feed shows attachment to the classic writers of the field like Le Carré and Graham Greene. Although the espionage plot twists in The Truth Itself aren’t unusual ones, the force of character that Kate Swift provides gives a new notion of what a woman can accomplish as an agent—and a mom.

Most pressing of all is Kate’s determination to protect her daughter. As she prepares to leave yet another set of allies, to try to get ahead of the team chasing her, she faces her daughter’s pressing question of “why” the latest ally, already part of their family structure, can’t go with them:
“Kate could have said: because I want to get as far away from him as I can. For his own safety.

But she just shrugged. ‘He can’t. He has to stay here.’ …

The child had tears in her eyes. ‘I don’t want to go. As soon as I meet people I like you take me away from them.’”
And that’s the heart of the quandary. Will Kate ever be able to let her daughter bond to people, and in fact, will it ever be safe for Kate to love again? Perhaps only the gifted but worn-out fixer, Harry Hook, could truthfully answer that.

Often violent but not particularly gruesome, The Truth Itself is a classic-style spy and escape adventure. It’s a good read, with engaging characters, and the final scene hints at a possible sequel in the works. That would be excellent news.

[From Blackstone Publishing.]

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Top-Notch Suspense Debut from Stuart Turton, British, Edgy, and Provocative

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Who would guess that a time-turning fantasy twist could be braided into a grim and edgy mystery, ending up with one of the most complex, suspenseful, and original page turners of the season? But that’s what Stuart Turton’s debut crime fiction achieves. Here’s the premise: Sebastian Bell—at least, that’s what people tell him he’s called, although he can’t recall a thing about his life before waking up injured in a dark woods—witnesses a murder. Or does he? No, it turns out he might not really be Sebastian, and the person he’s sure he’s there to protect, Anna, isn’t known to anyone at the mysterious house party where he’s a down-at-heels guest in a tumbledown mansion without phone service.

Then, just as things are starting to make sense, Sebastian’s in the middle of a much more pertinent possible murder plot. One that he’s supposed to stop, if he wants to save Anna. But who is Anna, anyway?

That’s meant to be confusing. The protagonist of The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle won’t figure out exactly who he is until there have been several more swift changes of point of view. And why he’s there is an even tougher mystery to unravel. 

But the basics are all in place for gothic suspense—in fact, Stuart Turton, a freelance London journalist, might as well be channeling Edgar Allen Poe or Stephen King for this compelling thriller. Who is the Footman and why is he so dangerous? Are the hosts of the house party, Lord and Lady Hardcastle, part of the confusion, or are they menacing, especially toward their own daughter Evelyn? Here’s Sebastian’s effort to pull the pieces together:
I’m out of my chair before the draft fades, pulling open the drawers of my nightstand, searching for some mention of Anna among my possessions, anything to prove that she isn’t the product of a lurching mind. Unfortunately, the bedroom is proving remarkably tight-lipped. Aside from a pocketbook containing a few pounds, the only other personal item I come across is a gold-embossed invitation, a guest list on the front and a message on the back, written in an elegant hand.
Lord and Lady Hardcastle request the pleasure of your company at a masquerade ball celebrating the return of their daughter, Evelyn, from Paris. Celebrations will take place at Blackheath House over the second weekend of September. Owing to Blackheath’s isolation, transport to the house will be arranged for all of our guests from the nearby village of Abberly.
From the invitation, Sebastian realizes he’s a doctor, but in his current state of chaos, he doubts he could even wield a stethoscope correctly. 

Terror escalates. The protagonist’s genuine efforts to be heroic and intelligent, despite the situation’s brain-damaged outlook, bind him rapidly to several of his fellow guests. Whether he can actually either prevent or successfully solve Evelyn’s murder will determine not only his own fate, but that of others trapped in Blackheath with him.

At one moment a desperate Sherlock Holmes, at another a tormented Dante facing a hell he’d never dreamed existed, the narrator insists on enduring each new peril, desperate to solve the case. This urgency turns The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle into a dark and intriguing thriller, a crime novel well outside the norm, and entirely memorable for both plot twists and unusual characters. Place on the stack of “to be read twice.” Turton’s crafted a winner.

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

Charles Todd's New Bess Crawford Mystery, A FORGOTTEN PLACE, Embraces Wales

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

How marvelous to have Charles Todd set the tenth Bess Crawford mystery in Wales, the least written-about part of the British Isles. And the long, slow movement into the story in A Forgotten Place evokes how loveliness can exist next to, even woven into, a deep darkness.

The skills of wartime nursing serve well for Bess Crawford, a “Sister” returning home from battlefield hospitals, in coping with the despair of British amputees at the end of the Great War, in 1914. (Remember that unlike the American term where "sister" would have implied being a nun, the British term "nursing sister" meant a graduate nurse). With a mix of gentle bullying learned from experience and from the Matrons who’ve led the nurses, Crawford nudges a Welsh office, Captain Williams, to resume leadership of his wounded men—even with his own condition of a missing leg and uncertain fitness for postwar work.

Yet despite Bess Crawford’s best efforts, one of the men is dead of suicide before leaving her care, and others appear ready to do the same. After all, what use is an armless or legless man in a coal mine? For in Wales at the time, that was almost the only way to make a living, dirty and dangerous as it was. 

Bess works at letting go of a persistent sense of responsibility for the Welsh men. But when a note from Captain Williams informs her that another suicide’s taken place, with more sure to follow, Bess takes the man’s plea seriously: “I’m at my wits’ end, and I am writing to ask your help in bringing them to their senses. I have no right to ask this of you, but if someone doesn’t do something, we’ll all be gone by the spring.”

Todd is completely convincing in portraying Bess Crawford’s overwhelming sense that she must “fix” this, and at the same time showing the tenderness and loyalty that she gives so readily to people she cares about, even though they live far away and in circumstances she can’t fathom. And it’s perfectly logical then for Bess to take her own leave and quietly board a train for that desolate, forgotten place and the wounded warriors barely clinging to existence.

When Bess finally catches up with the captain, who has already moved away from the suicides that surrounded him, he’s in an isolated hamlet on the storm-swept coast, even bleaker than the usual Welsh settlement of the time. His first whisper to her is ominous: “You mustn’t stay here,” he said softly. “It isn’t safe.”

That turns out to be an understatement, as Bess finds herself trapped in the hamlet and cut off from all her support, with her family and Matron not knowing she’s in this place, and the threat of death aimed even at her, if she tries to escape. Why? Well, the hamlet has a secret—and because Bess is such a good investigator, she soon knows that secret. Nobody can afford to allow her to tell it.

Readers of this series will appreciate how Charles Todd (a mother-and-son writing team) draws out the impact of the Great War in this grim time that could have been a celebration of peace, but instead reveals the deep wounds of the survivors. But there’s no need to have read the series before plunging into A Forgotten Place: Todd positions Bess Crawford’s persistence and daring adeptly, and no plot elements depend on the earlier books. There are a few unfortunate name errors in the text, but it’s easy to overlook them, in the double tide of the soldiers’ despair and Bess’s fierce commitment to bringing about as much healing and justice as is possible. 

Deft plot twists and an atmospheric setting make this a must-read for anyone savoring the abundance of World War I and II crime novels being published. In addition, the Bess Crawford series is the perfect “other gender” balance to both Todd’s original Inspector Rutledge series and James R. Benn’s Billy Boyle investigations, and A Forgotten Place forms an intriguing parallel to the Shetland mysteries by Ann Cleeves. Well worth adding to the “to be read” stack.

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

Anne Perry, DARK TIDE RISING (William Monk #24), Deep, Dark, and Satisfying

There are two components that make many a crime novel memorable over the long haul: the twists of the plot, and the way the crime's investigator stands up as a person—his or her courage, integrity, sense of humor, intelligence, and most of all, capacity to care.

That last aspect may seem a bit out of place at first. But it's what makes Louise Penny's Armand Gamache seem "known" to his legions of fans; it's what carries Carol O'Connell's prickly and dangerous Kathy Mallory into the hearts of her colleagues and readers; it's the part of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, and even Lee Child's feckless Jack Reacher, that pulls us to the next title, and the next.

And it's what makes Anne Perry's police Commander William Monk someone you might want for a neighbor, or on your local police force, in spite of his location in 1881 England.

In DARK TIDE RISING, Monk accepts a mission to protect the life of a wealthy real estate developer racing to ransom his kidnapped younger wife. Harry Exeter has a marriage Monk can connect with, because it's so much like his own: an unexpected and intensely valued relationship discovered against the odds, with a woman whose life is clearly worth sacrificing a fortune to save.

The protection effort and would-be rescue is going to have to take place at Jacob's Island, though. It's a location Monk knows far too well: a desperate slum of 1800s London, permeated by deadly tidal surges and even quicksand. He's witnessed death there: "He could still see the fat man sinking slowly into the tidal ooze, his mouth open, screaming, until the mud cut him off, and inch by inch he disappeared from sight." How can Monk organize his team to prevent such a disaster, while also bringing back the kidnap victim, Kate Exeter? Immaculate organization and planning must take place.

But Monk's efforts, with his men, the River Police, go quickly awry, and he's plunged into a very different and equally disastrous situation:
What he had not said, and what weighed on Monk's mind with further pain, was the thought that the kidnappers had known so much about their plans. There were five or six different ways the River Police could have got in, but the kidnappers had known precisely which ones they were going to use, how many man, and where they were along those tunnels and passages. What he forced himself to wonder was, who had told them?

It hurt even to think the words and yet they were there, whether he said them or not.
Perry's drama takes place in a setting where the gap between wealth and poverty set up extremes that were, in themselves, life-threatening, and the amount of effort for policing as she portrays it is accentuated by the absence of modern crime-solving tools and techniques. What Monk and his friends, including his insightful wife, must depend on is their sense of geography, their probing of human nature, and, in this rapidly developing and often twisting case, the classic threesome of crime: means, motive, opportunity. Here, the motive must somehow involve finances, as more threats and a whistle-blower's death are added to the events. But why?

Watching Monk sort out the motives of both the criminals and his own team members is fascinating, and emotionally compelling. Leadership, the power of friendship among men, struggles for the sake of each other ... these, as much as the sucking force of London's tides, deepen DARK TIDE RISING and make it one of Perry's best books.

No need to read the preceding Monk titles before plunging into this one, although of course they'll enrich the perspective on the characters. But Perry's a pro, laying out her characters and their past anguish with spare, quick details, making this a wicked good read. The publication date is September 18, from Random House. Pick up the hardcover first edition as a treat to yourself, an anchor of hope in humanity in this politically fraught season.

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

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Crimesolving Behind the Lines, World War II, with Billy Boyle, from James R. Benn

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Spies, enemies, and friends with mixed motives: good thing investigator Billy Boyle has his close friends Kaz and Big Mike with him in Normandy, France, in July 1944, because that may be the only loyalty he’s sure of. This 13th in James R. Benn’s must-read series of police work during the Second World War is a page-turner with complicated twists and the constant background of shellfire—often threatening Billy Boyle’s safety as he investigates close to the line of Germans trying to regain ground.

Boyle is a straightforward young American, the newest generation in a family of Boston cops. His relatives thought they’d carve a “safe” wartime slot for him by maneuvering him into the service of General “Ike” Eisenhower, a distant cousin by marriage. But Eisenhower’s early transition to the front of the war has carved out a dangerous and fascinating career for Billy, as an almost-civilian police officer probing the situations that threaten the general among his own forces.

In Solemn Graves, Billy Boyle and his team must investigate the murder of an American officer in a manor house close to the front lines in Normandy. Even the presence of Major Jerome in the house is supposed to be top secret, due to the unit he was supposed to advise: the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also called the Ghost Army. Like the group featured by British author Elly Griffiths in her “Mad Men” series, these troops are creating phantom action to distract, disorient, and misinform the Germans nearby.

That means the situation is fraught with possible betrayals. Billy and Kaz can’t be sure who around them could be a German spy, even the manor house owner Madame Regine Janvier. She’s survived the war through the produce of her farm, both fresh foods and pressed cider, naturally allowed to turn alcoholic and even fermented into liquor. But all around are examples of how the local population treats those who’ve survived the war by trading other things, such as sex, with the occupying German forces, and Billy’s a witness to the horrors:
‘Now, Captain Boyle, you shall see how we punish the collaboration horizontale,’ Legrand said, laughing as his men forced the four women to sit on the steps. But not to receive a bullet. Theirs was to be a less lethal, but still cruel, punishment. Men with scissors and hair clippers grabbed them roughly, pulling up their hair. They held them that way for a long minute as the townspeople heaped abuse on them. At a sharp command from Legrand, they began hacking away.
‘We call this the coiffure ’44,’ Legrand said. “You see, we can show mercy, Captain Boyle. . . . Hair will grow back. Necks do not.”
‘This is mercy?’ I asked, watching the girls. One wept, while another held her head high, maintaining what dignity she could. Another was noticeably with child . . . But it was the faces of the townspeople . . . that stunned me.
They were gleeful. They jeered at the girls, taunted them, reaching forward with wagging fingers of righteous disapproval. Deep groans of satisfaction arose as the old clippers drew blood. Wild, shrill laughter rang out from hearts and throats unrestrained by pity.
Meanwhile, at the manor house, Billy at first thinks he’s seeing true compassion, while the owner shelters a traumatized young woman, speechless and frail, and so lovely that every soldier billeted there seems to fall in love and want to take care of her. Eventually he has to wonder, though, how she came to be spattered with the blood of the murdered major. And why. And whether the crimes in play could injure the American battle underway.

As usual, Benn’s written a great page-turner, loaded with likeable characters and situations of compelling moral anguish. There is more to Billy Boyle’s war than the positions of the soldiers: It’s people’s hearts and loyalties that matter most.

[From Soho Crime, released today.]

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

Diversion: Poetry Worth Reading More Than Once, from Jennifer Franklin

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Whether it’s God or fate or karma or randomness, how should we respond when life skewers us with loss and cruel reshaping of dreams into walking nightmares? Jennifer Franklin, whose award-winning poetry has appeared in an earlier full-length collection and in many literary magazines and who teaches this art, rips us out of complacency and away from the simple (if unjust) answers of Job, biblical deity, and bumper-sticker wisdom, to confront more than her daughter’s autism spectrum disorder—instead, she turns the blunt mirror onto her own emotions and choices, until the force of each poem ejects the mirror from the page, into the reader’s hands.

Under a title taken from a line of T. S. Eliot’s, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” Franklin recalls that Daisy in The Great Gatsby hoped her child would grow up to be “a beautiful little fool.” Watching her own daughter unable to take part in birthday rituals, Franklin declares:
All you read are songbooks and sing to yourself
out of tune. At least you’ll never believe in fairy tales
or blame me for walking out after each of us was betrayed.
. . .
It’s your birthday again. The few people who love you
celebrate but only the two of us know we have no cause.
It’s not enough for life to have given Franklin a speechless daughter. She’s also taken the price of loss of speech herself, in treatment for major illnesses that she never quite specifies (but can be perceived from her Facebook posts, if needed). Her wheel of challenges never ceases, and in “Waiting again for biopsy results in the second-floor exercise room,” she declares:
. . . I wish
I hadn’t been too self-conscious to learn
the basics of the Argentine tango in
the three lessons before the wedding
in Thessaloniki. Ever since I read
Brontë, I refuse to use an umbrella
and pretend I’m walking the moors even
in the city. I am never where I am.
If I told you what I look forward to,
I couldn’t bear your pity.
Torn between speechless times (one poem mentions a “trach scar”) and quandaries too intense to turn into word of mouth, Franklin carries the mythological along with the myth makers. She asks her mostly wordless daughter questions that won’t be answered: “Like if you feel sick // or if our ancestors invented cave painting / or song first. You never lie to me // because you do not speak.”
And what is the “no small gift” of the title? Hints arrive with the poem “Philomela considers forgiveness” (reminder: rape victim who in her revenge is transformed into a nightingale). Franklin offers, “He’ll / never admit what he has done, but / in the blue afternoon of regret, // I realize this is no small gift. / I need not wrestle with absolution / since he will never repent.”

With her layered images interspersed with near-playful admissions (“Still life with tongue cancer”—there’s a second way to read that), Franklin turns her journey of devastations into a multidimensional transit of human depth. If joy is to rise out of chaos and pain, there must be a composting process first, an effort of adding air and time. In “Amor Fati,” she marvels, “I didn’t / know these cuts would save // more than my body. / I wouldn’t negate any of it / now if I could.”
Far from the traditional confessional poetry of, say, Ann Sexton or John Berryman, Jennifer Franklin insists that the material of life, even the darkest, sharpest moments, be valued and named. Don’t give this poetry collection to someone in the midst of terrifying treatment for a deadly disease. Instead, purchase the copy for afterward, for the endless loop of recovery, fear, hope, and self-knowledge. In that sense: Recovery lasts a lifetime.

PS:  Looking for more reviews? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here. Only interested in poetry? Try this link instead.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Trees Worth Killing For? Pioneer Valley Mystery BELOW THE TREE LINE from Susan Oleksiw

Susan Oleksiw writes in eastern Massachusetts, has set her two earlier mystery series in India and the New England Coast, and with BELOW THE TREE LINE returns to the farming communities of the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts (along the Connecticut River). The first sentence of the book gives fair warning of what's to come: "On the third night Felicity lifted the shotgun from its place in the cabinet, and this time she loaded it."

A single woman working out how to financially sustain an old farm (lease space to sheep that belong to fibre artists; charge fees to artists who want to paint the scene; a roadside stand of veggies), Felicity's far from prepared for the land scams and nighttime disturbances that take over her life. A shockingly large offer for the family farm triggers suspicion. But like a similar offer for her boyfriend's farm nearby, the money involved makes no sense. Except, of course, to hint that someone wants her off that land, fast.

Does that connect with the two local women, cousins, who've met sudden death nearby? When Felicity tries to find out whether one woman's car had been tampered with, she visits Kevin, the police investigator, at his home -- because of course, in this kind of community, he's a friend. Her visit gets a direct response:
"It's police business, Felicity. I'm not going to tell you anything."

"Okay, I won't ask. I rebuilt my farmstand this afternoon," Felicity said.

"You got it set up, too," Kevin said. "I saw it on my way home." ...

"What were you doing out my way?" Felicity asked.

"Police business," Kevin said.

"Oh, tell her, Kevin. She has a right to know," [Kevin's wife] Natalie said.
And with shock, Felicity learns that one of the murdered women already had a domestic violence complaint on file. Red herring? Or actual reason for her death?

A forest hermit who abruptly starts visiting national parks, a nasty neighbor or two among the good ones, a bobcat hanging out near her home -- there are a lot of distractions for Felicity as she struggles to uncover why death and threats are suddenly part of her daily life. Eventually they form a pattern that she almost understands.

Readers of traditional mysteries will appreciate Oleksiw's careful laying out of plot and clues, as they will indeed have a chance to get close to who the murderer is and why, through paying attention. And though the very last twist is pulled out abruptly, it's a clever one, worth appreciating.

Plot and pace are well done, in a workmanlike "amateur sleuth" form that's comfortable and satisfying. It's good to see the Pioneer Valley feature in this debut to a series, too -- lots of possibilities for future books.

One intriguing twist to BELOW THE TREE LINE is Felicity's gift of healing hands, something she applies to diagnosing whether an animal is healthy, and assisting her boyfriend. Counter to expectations, though, there's no explanation of the gift and it plays no role in unraveling the murders. And the final scenes are a bit hasty, compared to the rest of the book. But these are small gripes, considering the overall pleasure of this mystery. Add it to the reading stack for relaxation and a chance to solve a well-posed puzzle of crime and motive.

The book releases September 8, from Midnight Ink.

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