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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Quirky Mystery Making a Science Point, ALDO by Betty Jean Craige

Black Opal Books, a small publisher with West Coast roots, is releasing ALDO in paperback on March 24. I've been mentioning the trend of university presses bringing out powerful mysteries, often literary ones or with a strong tie to the press location. In this twist, the light-reading mystery comes directly from a college professor, Dr. Betty Jean Craige -- who has written books in the fields of Spanish poetry, modern literature, history of ideas, politics, ecology, and art.

ALDO may amuse headline readers who'll recognize the tweeting President on the sidelines, and makes a point about universities defending freedom of research and speech. As a mystery, it's more an amateur effort, with sketched characters and heavy revelation of criminal intent. And I tend to resist novels that are making a point more than they are crafting a plot. That said, I enjoyed the book's portrayal of germline genetics research and its implications, and the author's effort to write from the point of view of a Latina immigrant. If those are your collecting interests, you may want a copy for the shelf.

Otherwise, I'd suggest sampling it as an ebook -- a quick read for a plane or train trip or a couple of hours with your feet up. Kudos to the professor-author for tackling university issues in her story.

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

Love, Death, and Friends Forever, in FRIENDS & OTHER LIARS, by Kaela Coble

Highly engrossing, engaging, and unpredictable -- that's this winter's debut novel from Vermont author Kaela Coble, FRIENDS & OTHER LIARS. But is it a mystery? I'm not sure. It's certainly not a murder mystery; the only death in the book has already taken place before the action starts, and is clearly suicide. Yet some of the classic elements of a finely plotted mystery are very much present: red herrings, costly actions, mixed motives that need unearthing.

Moreover, the pacing is tight, the characters compelling, and ... I couldn't put it down.

Here's the setup: Ruby's visiting her home town (actually by Vermont standards, it's a small city) because of the death -- by suicide -- of one of her friends from the very tight group she survived high school with. But it's not a simple wake: The dead friend, Danny, quit the scene with a bundle of resentments against his friends, intense and painful and even cruel. And he's left his mom (who is hosting the wake) with a letter to read to the group:
You always talked about "the crew, the crew, the crew," like we were some untouchable entity. But when it comes to things that really matter, you guys barely knew each other. I think it's about time you did, if you're going to continue to pride yourselves on being friends since the womb. I know things about most of you that you didn't trust the crew to know.
In addition to this opening, Danny's left a letter for each of his four close friends, including Ruby and the man she's never quite coupled off with, Murphy. Each note reveals a secret that the person is deeply ashamed of. And he expect them to share these? Umm, the timing's not great. Plus there's a note he addressed to himself, which says simply, "I killed my stepfather."

It happens that Ruby already knows something about Danny's own "secret." But revealing that now, so many years after the fact, is going to complicate everything she's tried to put together in her life.

The book's chapters alternate time periods between the middle school and high school years and "now," and the critical question becomes, how is Danny, from the grave, orchestrating the threats of revelation among his former friends? And how will Ruby sustain the effects of her own secret being revealed?

This is a debut novel, but has few clues to that -- because the writing is smooth, clever, and expert. I'm curious to see what direction this author's next work will take.

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

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Can a Murder Mystery Be Tender? Yes, with RAINBIRDS by Clarissa Goenawan

Soho Crime has just added to its Japanese mysteries by publishing the debut novel of Clarissa Goenawan, RAINBIRDS. It couldn't be much more different from the work of Fuminori Nakamura, whose spare, literary noir with crime twists (also from Soho Crime) comes with both power and significant darkness -- instead, Goenawan (born in Indonesia, now living in Singapore) has taken the formalized and gender-forced culture of Japan and embedded in it a work of deep tenderness and ardent storytelling.

The young man who narrates RAINBIRDS is named Ren Ishida; he is about to take his graduate degree in English literature when he gets word that his sister Keiko, whom he hasn't seen in years, is a murder victim, stabbed in the street on a rainy night in a small city quite distant from the siblings' original home in Tokyo. Since he's not needed in Tokyo -- his grad work is all done except for the final ceremony -- he races off to the scene of Keiko's death. And, in a quirky follow-up to the mystery of her life of the past few years, he agrees to temporarily take on her duties teaching English at a cram school. Will he discover who his sister was and why she was killed?

Goenawan clearly has written her own English language here -- no translator involved -- but there is a slight stiltedness to the prose that reminds me of well-done translations from the Japanese. I suspect this also reflects a difference in how a Pacific-Rim novel described different levels of thought and action, in contrast to an American or British one. Here's a sample from one of the more moving moments of RAINBIRDS, when Ren leaves his unexpected housing in the middle of the night to experience what his sister might have, at the same time of night, in the park where she was murdered:
I lay down on the ground, panting. The rain hit my face, but I stayed still and closed my eyes. All I could hear was the sound of rain.

My sister should have been able to guess nobody would come in this kind of weather. She would have known she was about to die. What was on her mind in those final minutes?  Had she thought about Mr. Tsuda, or the guy she had gone out with in Akakawa? Had she thought about me?

Since the day my sister had left Tokyo, I'd hoped for her return, but I'd never told her that. Had I been too proud, or too indifferent? If I'd asked her to come back, would she still be alive?

I clenched my fists. No use asking myself that now -- no answer would bring her back. The day my sister died, a part of me died, too.
Ren's continued probing of his sister's murder will give him a fresh view of who she was and what the relationship between the two of them, stranded by their embattled parents, had really, meant. At the same time, he questions his own behaviors -- perhaps very Japanese ones in terms of having sex with prostitutes and casual partners for one-night stands, but also his inability to commit to the woman who wants to marry him.

I would certainly read another book from Goenawan, and wonder whether the Japanese feel of her writing would continue if she places future novels in other locations, or whether it is somehow part of her personal style. Mystery readers who feel strongly about the conventions of the genre may not be happy with the way RAINBIRDS carves out its terrain. But those who already enjoy Asian literature (including work by Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami) and those accustomed to the genre bending that takes place in modern noir work will find themselves unexpectedly at home in this less dark, yet self-inquiring, work. Released today by Soho Crime (Soho Press).

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



Tasting Cuba Through a New Mystery, Teresa Dovalpage's DEATH COMES IN THROUGH THE KITCHEN

Exploring another place and culture through an enjoyable mystery in that setting has a long tradition -- readers have long appreciated vintage English village life through Agatha Christie's books, and many who will never reach Italy treasure Donna Leon's Venice. Scandinavian noir takes us to Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland; the Brazilian series by the late Leighton Gage showed us a tender love of place and people coupled with the horror of crime driven by poverty and corruption.

Now it's a delight to be able to look inside Cuba in 2003 in DEATH COMES IN THROUGH THE KITCHEN, the first mystery from accomplished Havana-born author Teresa Dovalpage (Soho Crime). Dovalpage calls her book a literary mystery -- I'd rather liken it to the classic "recipe" mysteries, including the current Maine series by Barbara Ross and two food-focused series that Massachusetts author Edith Maxwell (aka Maddie Day) provides.

DEATH COMES IN THROUGH THE KITCHEN opens with the arrival of totally inexperienced, unskilled tourist Matt Sullivan, who hasn't really thought out how complicated his situation is -- but he's coming through customs with a slightly used wedding dress, a gorgeous one, that he plans to give to his Cuban sweetheart Yarmila in hopes of gaining a loving commitment from him.

The problem is, Matt really doesn't know Yarmi all that well -- she writes a cooking blog that describes delicious Cuban dishes and he's been following her via the Internet, in his role as a San Diego journalist trying to promote Latin cuisine. And his arrival during the height of Fidel Castro's police-maintained power means he'll be an under-the-table guest at a fiercely proletarian guest house, and an illicit suitor.

But by the end of the second chapter, we readers know that Yarmi has been murdered -- and Matt, the ambitious American who thought he'd found his lifeetime sweetheart, is now both bereaved, and a murder suspect ... to both the police and Yarmi's, ahem, other connections.

In fact, he's even imprisoned for a bit, and of course his passport is seized:
"Let's see. You meet this citizen, spend ten days with her, don't see her face to face again, send her tons of money," Lieutenant Martínez paused here for effect, "and come back ready to marry her. Is that correct?"

"Yes, compañera," Matt let the reference to "tons of money" slip "That's correct."
Soon Matt's desperation leads him to accepting help from a former police detective turned Santeria practitioner. But will the assistance be enough? And could there be too much benefit for all involved, by tagging Matt with the crime?

I thoroughly enjoyed this romp through Cuba via Matt's naive perceptions, and look forward to the next in this series from Dovalpage -- because there's sure to be more about this set of wild and eccentric characters. New from Soho Crime (Soho Press), released today.

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

Saturday, March 03, 2018

A Scientific Look Behind a Thriller, in MAKING THE MONSTER, from Kathryn Harkup

Kathryn Harkup calls herself a "science communicator," and her book A is for Arsenic: The Pisons of Agatha Christie made quite a hit a few years ago. Now she's tackled the work of another woman author -- or should we say teenager in this case, since Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was just 18, and saw it published at age 20!

Somewhat to my disappointment, MAKING THE MONSTER: THE SCIENCE BEHIND MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN rarely looks at the author of this classic thriller and sci-fi progenitor. But that's my own curiosity going in the wrong direction -- Harkup is clear from the start that what she's gathered are the scientific backgrounds to the many fresh creative efforts that Shelley drew together into the novel of Dr. Vincent Frankenstein and his animated cadaver, the monster himself. After a brief opening laying out Mary's personal troubles (ouch!), Harkup swiftly moves to the medical, chemical, and electrical amazements that were rocking the European world 200 years ago. I particularly enjoyed her assessments of alchemists and their theories as they played into the eventual novel Mary would craft:
The three alchemists that Mary chose as influences for Victor Frankenstein's early life -- Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus -- were three of the more dominant names in the history of alchemy as it was viewed in the early nineteenth century. However, the interests of these three historical figures demonstrate the huge range of philosophies held by so-called alchemists. Interestingly, none of the three would have called themselves alchemists and all of them wrote dismissively about those who tried to turn base metals into gold.
That's a fair sample of the writing that Harkup packs into this densely typeset, 300-page book. She moves quickly from one thorough assessment of scientific revelations to the next, including aspects of lack of refrigeration at the time, issues of anatomy, and even embalming:
Egyptian practices of mummification were for empowering the soul after death. The ancient Egyptians therefor saw no need to preserve everything in the body. Most of the internal organs were thus removed with only the heart being returned to the body. The bain was probably allowed to liquefy so it could be drained out of the skull. ... Bodies were dessicated using salts, left exposed to the elements, or dried out in ovens. Such techniques would not have been appropriate for Victor's requirements.
If you're able to overlook the slight queasiness of that liquefied brain part, and find you'd like to know more, MAKING THE MONSTER is meant for you! But it's also a great background text for those appreciating (or writing for!) TV shows like Criminal Minds, as well as grasping more of the background to Thomas Harris's grotesqueries. In other words, even if you can only digest a chapter or two now and then, there can be good reason to have this comprehensive reference on your shelf.

The book is published by Bloomsbury, and retains its British-isms. Great timing, for the 200th anniversary of Shelley's book. And if you're hungry for more about the author of Frankenstein herself, check out Fiona Sampson's book In Search of Mary Shelley -- Sampson is even appearing at times with Harkup in the United Kingdom, in this brave new era of appreciating the women who crafted potent thrillers and gothic horror at a time when they were better known as victims of Jack the Ripper and others.

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

Italian Mystery Series Debut from Mario Giordano, AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SICILIAN LIONS

What a great trend, to have European mysteries being translated at a newly rapid pace to bring fresh settings and attitudes to American readers! AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SILICILAN LIONS was written in German, even though Mario Giordano is the son of Italian immigrants to Germany. So its arrival in "the States" via Houghton Mifflin Harcourt meant translation by John Brownjohn (deftly!), with healthy dashes of Italian exclamations left in place. This confusion of heritage also means there's a lot of varied culture packed into the book, and the first few chapters are tough going -- Aunti Poldi, known formally to her new neighbors as Donna Poldina, is from Bavaria, a "free state" of Germany, and her formal name is Isolde Oberreiter. After some years of sorrow -- a challenging marriage, then widowhood and abrupt loss of funding, and some chaos in Africa that we never quite learn about -- Poldi has opted for a fresh start, near the sisters of her late husband, in Sicily. And with a view of the sea.

Adding to the mild confusion in the book's opening is the author's choice of double narrators: both Poldi herself in "third person," and her would-be writer nephew, to whom she is explaining what's taken place whenever he's back to visit her. After a while, I settled into the routine, and by about one-third through, I was totally in Poldi's pocket, eager to see how she would assess a crime scene and simultaneously open doors for her own passionate sense of life as crammed with love and erotic delight (or pierced by the lack of them!). How do the two narrations work? Here's a snippet, as Poldi's seaside walk leads her to the corpse of the missing hired helper Valentino she's been searching for:
When Poldi came nearer a cloud of flies rose from the remains of his head.
With a groan, she knelt down beside him. Just crouched beside the corpse, whimpering softly as if that age-old song of grief could bring him back to life. The big pebbles hurt her knees, but she scarcely felt the pain. She grasped his left hand, which was as cold and hard and dry as the stones on the beach.
"Oh, Valentino, why did you never say a word?"

She fondled his cold hand and stared at the sea and the rising sun, to avoid having to look at him. It wasn't her first dead body and she wasn't easily shocked, but the sight of the mangled face affected her deeply. She turned her head away and tried to concentrate on his hand, on his dirty fingernails and the familiar tattoo.

At length, however, she forced herself to look.

"That was when I made Valentino a promise," she told me later. "An almost automatic process was at work, that's why. It was genetically conditioned."

"You mean a kind of ... criminalistic hereditary reflex?" I asked, remembering the psychology course I'd dropped out of.

"Bullsh**. It was the hunting instinct." She looked at me. "Either you've got it or you haven't."
From here on, Auntie Poldi is hunting for the killer.  It won't be easy -- she's making friends in her new neighborhood, but she's still a ways from feeling accepted by Sicily, and her outbursts of Bavarian language (and insight) aren't always welcome. With a marvelous cast of characters, from the sexy (but unable to commit) police investigator, to the wealthy landowner obsessed with the German poet Hölderlin, to her new French friend Valérie, to her helpful and eager sisters-in-law, Poldi plunges into Sicilian entanglements. And crime solving -- she's determined to be the first to reveal the killer. (Uh-oh.)

Even during the slow first few chapters, something about Poldi and her nephew pulled me into this "amateur-sleuth" mystery -- and by the second half of the book, I was scooting away from other work on the flimsiest of excuses, just to catch up with Poldi's next charge forward. I liked the clever chapter openers, too, which hinted at what would emerge. And I found the ending delightful -- including its clear opening for more Auntie Poldi books ahead. (This interview with the author reveals that two more are already written.)

I already have three people in mind to whom I'd like to give a copy of this rollicking, passionate, and engaging mystery -- perhaps the best metric of how good a book is.  Looking forward to more. Forza, Aunti Poldi!

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



Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Investigator in Pain, Revealing the Cost of Murder, in R. J. Ellory's THE DEVIL AND THE RIVER

The moment I opened the American publication of R. J. Ellory's THE DEVIL AND THE RIVER, I knew I was hooked. Although I spread my reading time for the nearly 400 pages over several days, I would have loved to skip work and just stay on the couch with this book. Not only does it probe life in a sleepy Mississippi town, with a pointed finger trailing through voodoo as well as murder -- but it probes the residue of the Vietnam War through the flashbacks and soul-deep damage to investigator John Gaines. Here's the first paragraph, under the chapter heading "Wednesday, July 24, 1974":
When the rains came, they found the girl's face. Just her face. At least that was how it appeared. And then came her hand -- small and white and fine like porcelain. It surfaced from the black mud and showed itself. Just her face and her hand, the rest of her still submerged. To look down the riverbank and see just her hand and her face was surreal and disturbing. And John Gaines -- who had lately, and by providence or default, come to the position of sheriff of Whytesburg, Breed County, Mississippi, and before that had come alive from the nine circles of hell that was the war in Vietnam, who was himself born in Lafayette, a Louisianan from the start -- crouched on his haunches and surveyed the scene with a quiet mind and a steady eye.
This is what we demand of our best crime-solving people: a quiet mind and a steady eye, and an inner recognition of the horrors and pain embedded in violence. If only it could all be balanced neatly! But as Gaines will soon discover, to probe the roots of this death will also mean reactivating his own most terrible memories of the war, and facing what it has done to him.

The body surfacing from the muddy river bank turns out to be that of Nancy Denton. When she was just 16, two decades earlier, she'd gone for a walk in the Whytesburg woods -- and never returned. Very quickly, John Gaines realizes hers is not a recent death, but perhaps one that dates to the day of her disappearance. How has the body been preserved? What actions were taken before it found a resting place? And who felt the need to kill this lovely young woman?

Gaines is an inexperienced sheriff, driven by poignant and forceful memories of killing and survival in the Vietnam jungles, as well as by a longing to have his returned-to-America life carry some goodness, some meaning, and deep justice. He soon finds that Nancy's teen years took place in a small group of close friends, where romances were both budding and frustrated. And a powerful Southern family, the Wades, is somehow involved in covering up what happened 20 years earlier.

Gaines's most direct route back to the "cold case" is through another veteran, this one of an earlier war: Michael Webster, one of the lucky ones who returned from live action in World War II, minus all the others in his fighting group. Could it be Michael, with his own raw PTSD, who killed Nancy Denton? One of the Wade family members, defending Michael, challenges Gaines to go easy on this veteran so similar in some ways to himself:
"You are perhaps made of stronger stuff than Lieutenant Webster. Some men are just a little more fragile than others, you know?"

"You're telling me that he is the victim here? Are you f**ing crazy?"

"Oh, I am saying nothing of the sort, Sheriff. I am well aware that a heinous crime has been perpetrated here, that some poor girl was abused and murdered, but this was all twenty years ago ... I just think Michael Webster is incapable of establishing any kind of stable ground for his own defense, and I would like to think I am assisting him with his constitutional right to fair representation when it comes to his day in court."

"This is just bullsh**, if you don't mind me saying, Mr. Wade."
What Gaines suspects, beyond the possible violent act in the past by Webster, is that Wade himself is somehow involved in the coverup, for reasons of his own. Or could Wade have been the killer?

It's complicated. And Sheriff John Gaines can't get to the truth without sorting his own war memories and what they have done to his capacity to be human, to be caring, to take part in community.

Don't be confused by earlier releases of the book in the United Kingdom; this is the American release, orchestrated by Overlook. If, like me, you carry conflicting emotions and memories of the Vietnam War years, here is a potent narrative in which to reconsider your own past, as well as the country's. And if you value a crime novel that probes the vulnerability and courage of the mind -- as Charles Todd has done with his World War I-era detectives, for instance -- you'll want the book on your shelf for repeated reading. Add it also to novels of the South and the grief and beauty entwined there.

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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Excellent British Traditional Mystery from Rebecca Tope, THE HAWKSHEAD HOSTAGE

It's a small world, true enough. But in the world of mystery fiction, it's also a very wide world with more good books and skilled authors than most people can catch up with. Still, I'm always somehow surprised when I find an established author I've never heard of ... and delighted, because a list of previous books comes along with the discovery!

This season I finally read a book by British author Rebecca Tope, thanks to publisher Allison & Busby sending an after-publication copy. Tope's current two series are one set in the Cotswolds (a place I'd love to walk sometime) and one set in the Lake District (dear to my heart as a lifelong fan of the Swallows and Amazons children's books).  THE HAWKSHEAD HOSTAGE is in the Lake District group and features florist Persimmon "Simmy" Brown, who also appears in five other mysteries.

The action starts at Simmy's flower shop, where life is a bit dull in the summer tourist season, which pulls people outside for hiking and exploration but doesn't impel them to buy bouquets. Simmy is also trying to recover from the loss of one of her employees, who has gone to work at an upscale hotel instead for more action -- which turns out to involve Simmy after all, when Melanie dashes into the shop to announce that she's snagged Simmy a bit floral assignment, arranging massive flower vases for the hotel some distance away, sure to use two half-days per week ... and be worth being paid accordingly. Simmy's not sure this is a good thing, but she starts to adapt to the notion, and en route to the hotel to get acquainted, she provides a ride to a young hiker, Ben, whom she already knows. And Ben in turn is close friends with Simmy's remaining employee, an unusual youngster named Bonnie. Ben takes off to kill some time while Simmy meets the hotel staff, so she doesn't realize there's a problem until she returns to her car and her phone, which she'd left there:
Out of habit, Simmy switched on the phone, and within a few seconds it gave the little song that told her she had a message. Bonnie, she supposed, with a question about the shop. It was a voicemail, not a text, which suggested it might be urgent. With a sigh, Simmy put the phone to her ear, reluctant to discover what mistake the girl might have made without having recourse to advice.

"Simmy!" came a high-pitched voice, full of panic. "There's a body here. Under the trees, at the very top end of the lake. I don't know what to do. Well, I'll have to call 999. Who knows when you'll get this ... Hey!" The phone went silent in her hand, even though she continued to listen for further speech.

It was Ben. The last syllable had been closer to a scream than a shout. ... Not until that final word did she understand that this was real, and that the boy was not merely panicked but terrified.
When the body's found but Ben isn't, it's clear whoever killed the man on the hotel grounds must have taken Ben as a captive to protect themselves. Simmy of course feels responsible -- she gave the young man a ride, and he's gone missing.

But all her efforts run into dead ends, and it's Bonnie who puts the pieces and clues together to guess at what has happened to Ben and where to look for him. It takes so long to reach a solution -- what shape will he be in? Alive, dead, injured? And is there still a way that Simmy can make sure the young people survive to confront the criminals?

A lively read, jumping from one point of view to another, and not entirely easy for someone who hasn't read any of the other books in the series -- but well worth it, to realize what a good run of books by Tope is waiting to be read. In fact, since she's worked with three English-countryside series (the third is her West Country Mysteries), there's a big stack ready. That's great news!

(Tope's website is out of date, but it's not hard to find lists of her titles elsewhere.)

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

Brief Mention: Las Vegas Noir from David Kranes, ABRACADABRA

There's a new-ish trend among university presses that's fascinating to observe: an urge to publish fiction, including thrillers and mysteries, set in the press's home state. When the University of Minnesota Press began to publish the Scandinavian/Minnesotan fiction of Vidar Sundstøl, I became an instant fan. And now the University of Nevada Press presents David Kranes with his outrageous and delightful detective tale, ABRACADABRA.

Kranes is an established author of seven other novels and many short stories, and lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he is a professor emeritus at University of Utah. He clearly knows Las Vegas well -- but more importantly, he's willing to risk his dignity by creating a detective with a head injury that takes him well beyond "the facts of the case" -- and crime-solving assistants like the Bloody Marys (a network of cocktail waitresses) and his own team of celebrity impersonators (Shaquille O'Neal, anyone?). As a detective, Elko Wells is far outside the usual (and he used to be a pro football player, another wild aspect).

Then again, the case Elko tackles in ABRACADABRA is also outside the box -- literally. Lena Goodson wants him to find her husband Mark, who, trapped in a very uncomfortable marriage, has just escaped her, by leaving backstage during a magician's act that should have resulted in his simple reappearance in the traditional black stage box.

Plenty of fun and entertainment here, along with magic tricks and classic cons, as well as a sense of the mysteries of love and life and of course impersonation, whether intentional or not, and its, shall we say, spiritual aspects.

Grab this one for a very unusual blend of offbeat detection, caper, crime, and discovery.

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


Scary and Compelling Thriller from Carter Wilson, MISTER TENDER'S GIRL

Coupled with the title, the cover on Carter Wilson's fifth book, MISTER TENDER'S GIRL, scared me -- in fact, I found the combo so creepy that I almost skipped reading the book. And that would have been a mistake, because this is one of the smartest, well-twisted, enjoyable thrillers I've read this year.

Wilson's area of the mystery/thriller genre has been labeled "dark domestic thrillers." In MISTER TENDER'S GIRL, the action opens in Manchester, New Hampshire, a gritty, once-industrial city that now hosts a fine crop of tech firms and coffee shops, along with a charmingly diverse population. It's the coffee shop aspect that matters here -- Alice Gray, whose name was originally Alice Hill, owns a coffee shop, and in addition, a  colonial-style, century-old building nearby where she lives: In one building, her low-keysecond-floor apartment where she lives (quirkily, she has no knives in her home), and a third-floor space rented to a quiet tenant she barely knows. Things are going along reasonably well for her. She rarely misses England, where at age 14 she was brutally attacked by a pair of teens like herself ... and her carefully constructed new life lets her mostly hide from her past.

Until, one day, an online dating site she's signed up for, to satisfy a friend who thinks her life looks lonely, gives her a match from a name deep in her past: "Mister Tender," the name of the most outrageous character in a graphic novel series created by her now-dead father. The horrors are about to open up once again.

The creepiest part of the disaster Alice is walking into is the sense, even in Manchester, NH, that she's being watched by some evil linked to her past. Someone online knows about the crime against her, the killing of her father, and even where she was this week -- in fact, it looks like she has multiple stalkers, and no safe place to go or person to be with. Add her very odd mother to that list, and an ex-boyfriend, and people back in England, where the bizarre and cruel changes of her life began.

Wilson's skill places the creepiness smack in the middle of our ordinary modern lives, where our computers are close at hand and our past is increasingly incapable of being erased from the Internet.  For Alice, that means there's no safety possible:
Today is the fourteenth anniversary of my attempted murder. I had almost forgotten, but my phone screen reminds me. October eighteenth. I remember it mostly as it was referred to in court, the solicitors repeatedly saying, "On the night of October 18 ..." I will hold no memorial on this day, carry no special reflections. I'll just try to get through it as I do every other.
So she lets her employees know she'll get to work late, and almost without thought, she follows the one clue she's been given to the stalkers in her life: She enters a site called "www.mistertender.com" where there's a message board of people obsessed with her life. She wants to type "LEAVE ME ALONE" and she enters the site, without identifying herself yet --
But before I type a single thing, a direct message appears in the inbox of this forum. It's from the master of ceremonies himself, Mr. Interested.

I click to open it. The message only has two words:

Hello, Alice.
This level of threat soon puts Alice on the run, back to the site of the original crime and colliding with her would-be killers. Yet someone, or maybe multiple someones, continues to track her and communicate.

This is a true page-turner, an assembly of threats that feel so close to home that the twists of plot become both chilling and agonizing -- who could be knocking at our own social media doors?

Wilson's finale provides even more twists, and a threat level that's over the top, but mercifully quick to resolve. Whether Alice will survive is always in doubt. Along with whether she'll ever feel safe again.

A must-read for anyone who can handle the suspense of wondering whether their own Internet-connected life might be, shall we say, just a bit risky after all? Best of all, Wilson's created a tie to graphic novel work that's stunning. I'd recommend this one for all thriller readers, with the reassurance that in spite of the terrifying aspects of the cover and what "might" happen, the book's resolution is highly satisfying -- go for it.

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

Spymaster Mick Herron's Stand-Alone, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED

I'm a major fan of Mick Herron's "Slow Horses" espionage novels. They're British and embedded in the classic MI5 framework -- but with a major twist that provides protagonists who are "failed spies," people who've messed up some major operation but can't be simply fired because they already know too much. Stashed among the misfits at Slough (pronounced Slow) House, they wither in their own estimation and in the noxious atmosphere provided by their "head of station."

So when I opened Herron's January 2018 offering, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED, I kept expecting some connection back to the Slow Horses team, and when 26-year-old Maggie Barnes began to suspect she was being recruited for either industrial or international espionage, I started turning the pages even more rapidly than before. (Herron's storytelling is compelling ... his books are really, really hard to put down.)

My mistake. Unless I missed a very small mention (and I don't think I did), none of the Slow Horses spies turn up in this stand-alone suspense novel. Maggie, turned loose as a temporary infiltration agent, could be any one of us -- how would you do if thrust into a life-and-death, possible prison condition in a matter of hours after work one day? Who could save you??

Herron shapes a novella of psychological suspense in THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED. I won't shelve it on my Slow Horses section, but rather next to some work by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell in her most twisted voice) and maybe even Stephen King, for the all-too-human pain involved. It's quite a read ... hope you pick up a copy to experience this other side of Herron's craft.

Slow Horses fans, keep in mind June 5, 2018, when the next in this series releases in the US: London Rules. Many thanks to Soho Crime for helping Herron keep these on a roll.

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

South African Noir, MY NAME IS NATHAN LUCIUS, by Mark Winkler

Nothing is simple in Mark Winkler's crime fiction -- least of all the motivation of the protagonist. In MY NAME IS NATHAN LUCIUS (his "fourth" title but actually his second novel, originally titled Wasted), Winkler provides a setup that should be transparent: Nathan Lucius is telling his own story, in detail, including his emotions and his, umm, peculiar forms of unclean mind. We should know whether he committed any crimes, and why -- right?

Well, no. Not the way Winkler spins this very usual and gritty work of noir. Nathan Lucius, age 31, an ad salesman for a newspaper, has unusual filters for what's important to comment on, and what's not. Running, drinking, jerking off ("wanking" in British slang) -- those are his primary concerns. Almost accidentally, in his preferred life of days-all-the-same, he's made a friend, the owner of a secondhand shop. This owner, Madge, is dying of cancer, and soon we realize Madge and Nathan are considering how he might help her to end her life.

But just how twisted is Nathan's version of his possibly crime-leavened life going to get? It's tempting to say, "not twisted," because Nathan appears to narrate everything just as it happens. But check out this interlude, when he first is questioned about Madge's death, by Inspector Morris:
I'm expecting a tough Cockney from a BBC cop show. I suppose it's the name. Morris has a heavy Afrikans accent. It would be a mistake to associate the accent with stupidity. People have done that before. I'm not going to. The room is so small that he has to squeeze himself against the wall to get around the table. He sits opposite me. He thanks me for coming. I put my sad face one. I tell him the facts as I'd told them to Mrs du Toit.

"So you've known the deceased for ...?"

"Four or five years," I tell him. [...]

"Forgive me, I have to ask. Was there anything, ah, inappropriate about your relationship?"

"Goodness, no." I sound just like Madge.
Blurbs for the book in advance talked about its exploration of violence, trauma, social responsibility, memory, morality ... I would rather say it's a daring adventure with an unreliable and unlikable narrator who nevertheless turns us into his witnesses, for court and elsewhere, with a related crazy mix of horror, appalled laughter, and insistence on knowing what comes next. Don't read this unless you're ready for very, very dark (think Dave Zeltserman even more than Thomas Harris). But if you do pick it up, clear the schedule, because you'll need to finish it before you'll be able to do anything else.

And then, you'll want to wash your hands. Twice.

From Soho Crime (Soho Press) comes this unforgettable transplant from a distant continent, straight into our most unsettling postmodern unease.

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

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Third Thriller from Douglas Schofield, KILLING PACE

Sometimes books arrive here for review after they've already been released -- and KILLING PACE is one of those. I wasn't wild about the title, and the (misleading) cover suggested a sort of Celtic time lapse ... but I finally opened the book and then quickly lost track of time, absorbed in this powerfully told and complicated page-turning thriller set in Florida and in Sicily. It's Douglas Schofield's third, but not part of a series; he tends to write female protagonists (and explains something about that here -- in ways that interest me a great deal). And his extensive background in criminal prosecution, as well as globe-trotting, makes him an ideal source for his own plots.

In KILLING PACE, a woman's been held near-prisoner by her presumed fiancé, but it only takes a small breath of freedom for her memories of another life to flood back. Soon we're chasing major criminals in Italy with a woman of another name who works for the U.S. Customs investigation team -- same person? Some answers flash quickly; others, like who's behind the crimes around her (parts smuggling; baby kidnapping) are slower to mesh. But the twists keep coming, and so does the action.

Let's say, for the sake of not throwing any spoilers, that at least one strong woman in KILLING PACE has an Italian grandmother, which gives her definite advantages when sleuthing in Italy, of course. Here's a sample from later in the book:
She could live with being the roughly assembled product of Silvana Pace's obsessions.

Law and justice ...

Today, Laura Pace was a fugitive from the law, hunted for crimes she didn't commit.

Law and justice ...

Today, a police officer had broken the law to prevent her from being arrested.

Law and justice ...

Tonight, she was lying in a bed in a safe house run by a secret United Nations intelligence until whose activities probably violated a score of U.S. federal statutes.

Nonna would completely understand.
Intrigued? It's quite a ride, really well written, and convinced me that I want to read more from this author! The publisher is Minotaur, and I'm sure there are more titles on the way.

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

Saturday, February 10, 2018

New from Randall Silvis, WALKING THE BONES, Murder and Love

Last year's mystery from Randall Silvis was Two Days Gone, a superb work of compelling suspense that tested the impact of once-in-a-lifetime friendships, while also inquiring into how writers do that mysterious "slice open a vein" action and live to tell about it ... or not. Police Sergeant Ryan DeMarco's investigation led him into immense pain over the loss of his writer friend, and also across the line into killing a killer.

In this year's new Silvis offering, WALKING THE BONES, DeMarco is determined to recover from his losses -- and to get around to the foundational work that his romantic relationship with a fellow officer, Trooper Jayme Matson. It's already a fraught affair, taking place around his obvious case of depression and PTSD and haunted by his child's death and the way his wife has abandoned him (but not yet divorced him). Is there any chance he can regain enough health of heart -- emotional and physical -- to meet Jayme's expectations?

Things look rough -- but when a cabal of quirky justice seekers in Jayme's hometown of Aberdeen, Kentucky, enlist DeMarco to investigate the deaths of seven young women (only their bones remain), his sense of purpose moved back into position (and Jayme's egging it on).

The crimesolving here is well plotted and first rate. But the best strength of any Randall Silvis book is the growth of character, often through pain, and with much awareness of how fragile life can be. Here's a taste of WALKING THE BONES:
At sixteen [DeMarco] was still fleet of foot, and by then had gotten a name for himself as a street fighter thanks to his quick hands and footwork. His knuckles were still scarred fro some of those fights.

In the army he could do five miles with a full pack and still be the first man to the showers. But he had been forty pounds lighter then. And unburdened by the elephantine weight of a conscience that rendered all unnecessary movement futile.

These days all the important movement took place in his head. And to keep that movement fro devolving now into a dark downward spiral, he thought about the girls. Seven unfortunate girls of color, all from miles and hours away. all ending up here in quiet little Aberdeen with the butterflies and hummingbirds,

He wondered if Hoyle had been aware of the metaphor he had created by describing the girls as cocooned in plastic sheeting. Hoyle, as strange as he was. did not strike DeMarco as  man who chose his words lightly.

And it made DeMarco sad to think of those girls as unformed butterflies. They had never been given their wings, had never tested the sky. And now every time DeMarco saw a butterfly, he would think of those girls.
For DeMarco to solve the case, he'll have to push well beyond his current physical limits, and risk both his life and his heart, under grim conditions that reminded me at times of a Stephen King horror plot. But don't underestimate him -- or Jayme, who's determined to somehow pull him back to life.

A fine read; I only wish DeMarco's series came to publication more often than once a year. This one, like its predecessor, comes from Sourcebooks. Readers of Julia Keller's West Virginia mysteries will feel at home in this Silvis series; those to value the mysteries of Charles Todd and Louise Penny will also recognize the soul battle underway.

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

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Edgy San Francisco Mystery, Dystopian, from Jonathan Moore: THE NIGHT MARKET

Wow!

I really liked Jonathan Moore's mystery from last year, The Dark Room. And I figured I'd enjoy the 2018 book, which was already scheduled at that time. But I had no idea what was in store -- THE NIGHT MARKET knocked me breathless.

Fiercely plotted with twists and blade-sharp revelations, wrapped around homicide detective Ross Carver in a San Francisco of the hauntingly near future, THE NIGHT MARKET takes "techno-thriller" to a new height of expert writing and psychological disturbance. I couldn't put it down, and I'm shaken by the suggestions on how Big Money and Big Advertising may already be twisting our culture -- and threatening our lives.

Here's how it starts: Ross Carver and his partner, as the homicide team on duty, answer a call to a home where there's a presumed murder that's just taken place. That is, there's a corpse, and blood -- and the neighbor reported sounds of a frightening disturbance. But when Carver gets into the room with the body, what he sees makes no sense ... a covering of some kind of fungus already engulfing the body. Even less does the next moment make sense, as the FBI bursts onto the scene and drags Carver and his partner out to some kind of biological decontamination rig.

We know that -- but Carver, waking up in his own apartment with a neighbor he's never met taking care of him, has to start from scratch, because his memory has been wiped, and so has his partner's. The messed-up records of where he may have been are enough to suspend him from duty. But the tiny scrap of information left for him -- a fragment from a case he and his partner were supposed to investigate -- turns out to tie him back to the dangerous experiment he seems to have stumbled into.

The trouble is, it looks like organized crime and Very Very Big Money are running a scam in San Francisco -- maybe across the country -- that Carver can't afford to discover if he wants to survive.

Here's a scrap of conversation between Carver and his mysterious neighbor, Mia, who might be on his side. Or not. At any rate, she's ahead of him on figuring out the technology behind the crime scene that he witnessed:
"I didn't know what else to do," Mia said. "I've been sitting here for weeks, waiting. Either to be killed, or for someone to pull me out. And there wasn't any other choice. I  can't do this alone. I don't even know how they got to her, so I have no idea what's safe and what isn't." ...

"Did Johnny Wong kill her?" Carver asked.

"I don't know."

"But you didn't hear that name for the first time from me. You already knew about him, didn't you?" ...

"We finally had a lead," she said. "Years in the dark, and then we thought we had a way in."

"Tell me."

"It's like what they said about J.F.K. You want to know who killed the president? List the world's best marksmen, and then find out which ones were in Dallas. Making these devices would be incredibly hard. We guessed only a few scientists in a few labs could do it."

"So you did your research, and then you made a list."
The closer Carver gets to figuring out the trap he's in, the closer he gets to a very nasty death. Or worse.

I couldn't put this one down, and I know I'll re-read it, tugging at the dangerous truths woven into the page-turning fast-paced plot. I know it took Moore a while to bring this one to publication -- he had to insert at least one other book before it -- and it was worth the wait. He sees it as the finale of a three-book painting of San Francisco: The Poison Artist, The Dark Room, The Night Market. Which of course suggests there won't be a sequel -- I wonder what he'll next bring to dark, vivid life on the pages.

From HMH, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And do check out Moore's author webpage, here. Last but not least, should I point a finger at the character name, for mystery/suspense fans who know their classics??

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

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Brief Mention: DOMINIC, sequel to Hollow Man, by Mark Pryor

Mark Pryor is British by birth and bucked the author trend by moving to Austin, Texas, to become an assistant district attorney. His Hugo Marston series, apparently now on long pause, is set in Europe and delves into human love and loyalties, with a whiff of the paranormal that evil can call forth.

I found his stand-alone crime novel Hollow Man to be interesting -- it's in the Dexter line, and also similar to Garry Disher's Wyatt series, as the protagonist is a psychopath. Unlike Disher's Wyatt, however, Pryor's charming criminal Dominic -- himself an Englishman and prosecutor -- shows no inner sense of longing for an emotional life. Love leaves him cold ... well, not physically, but he won't be making any genuine self-sacrifice for the lady who attracts him. And again unlike the Marston series, this one is set in Texas. Dark, dark Texas.

Pryor then created a sequel after all, which was released last week: DOMINIC. This time, to add to the puzzle of Dominic's criminality and manipulations, there's a lady of interest involved who is nearly as chilly-hearted as the psychopath protagonist ... a lady in a lime green dress that shows off all her physical allure. Is it her beauty, or her own manipulative psyche, that attracts Dominic?

Making the book yet more challenging is Pryor's device of alternating voices between these two dangerous personas. And each time he does so, it's up the reader to catch up, because on the page each one speaks as "I." So it pays to note the character name at the opening of each numbered chapter.

Although the manipulations and interrupted interior monologues are compelling and even haunting, they are also deeply disturbing. I do hope there aren't many people like Dominic in the real world. I came away from the book reluctant to face another in this series, and hope that it's not the career of dealing with American courtrooms that is pulling this kind of writing from the author!

If you're a Wyatt or Dexter fan, or a reader of Dave Zeltserman, you need Hollow Man and DOMINIC on your shelf, for comparison and to better grasp the choices of these noir crime-fiction creations. Do expect to get up and check that the double locks are in place on the doors, and that all your other means of self-protection are ready and close at hand. Published by Seventh Street Books, where crime fiction thrives.

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

Mystery of 1920s Bombay, THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL, Sujata Massey

Newly released this week is a hot new historical mystery from Soho Crime -- one that's been widely anticipated for its colorful depiction of a blend of cultures becoming vitally important in global interactions today. Written by English-born and American-raised Sujata Massey, THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL provides a traditional mystery format within the compelling setting of a young woman trying to find her way to a law career at a time when that was nearly unheard of in India.

Happily, THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL opens with Perveen Mistry already a confident woman solicitor in her father's law firm in Bombay -- and presented with a legal puzzle that will require unraveling first a set of cultural barriers. Perveen suspects something's amiss when three women, all widows of a polygamous and prosperous Muslim client of her father's, suddenly appear to have signed over their interest in the estate of their joint husband. She wants to investigate. But the women are in purdah, that is, seclusion, and it won't be easy to reach them or to find out the truth.

From this 1921 opening, Massey takes the story back five years, to when this "modern" Parsi teen lost her half-under-the-table place at a law school in Bombay, fell in love, and abruptly married a young man from an "orthodox" Parsi family. Her excruciating struggles in this situation become the forceful background for how she develops into a problem-solving and competent adult who'll tackle an unjust situation when she discovers it.

Here's a taste of Mistry family life as Perveen argues for a chance to marry, sooner than her older brother:
Grandfather Mistry cleared his throat and said, "If a younger sister marries before her older brother, people will believe she had to marry for reasons of pregnancy. Every bead of her reputation will be sold."

"We aren't like that." Perveen struggled to keep her voice level. "And what else can I do with myself now that I am not a student, except get married?"

"The one who digs a whole falls into it," Grandfather Mistry replied dourly, and Rustom snorted.

[Perveen's mother] pressed her hands together as if she was nervous. "You were always such a dear, agreeable daughter. You appreciated what you were given, not like some others in town. How can you do this to us?"

"I didn't do anything to you! His parents have asked for a meeting. Won't you at least give them the respect they deserve by going?" she pleaded.
Count on needing the insight Perveen is gaining here, for when she attempts to unravel the mystery of the widows of Malabar Hill!

Perhaps today's best known crime fiction series set in India (in some titles; others simply deal with India as background) is Barbara Cleverly's Commander Joe Sandilands series (post World War I). But that set of titles works from the point of view of an English military man who's sympathetic but not of the culture. Massey's series, framed in a young woman's perspective and playing various cultures within India's melting pot against each other, is eye-opening and intriguing.

Well written, highly detailed, and engaging, THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL shows Massey's extensive writing experience, as well as an acute eye for human frailty and conflict. I'm glad to note from her material that there's a sequel on the way. The series is published by Soho Crime, which also publishes the Cleverly series -- I recommend both.

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

Friday, January 05, 2018

New England Mystery Delight in Barbara Ross's New STOWED AWAY

Love a good traditional mystery with a smart amateur sleuth, hot clues, red herrings, an intriguing setting, and characters you can bond with? Good! Barbara Ross is once again writing exactly for you, in her newest Maine Clambake Mystery, STOWED AWAY.

Series fans have been waiting eagerly for this new title, and know the backstory to what Julia Snowden is facing: the fire-cored disaster of her family's historic house on the Maine coast island where she and her relatives are scrambling to re-open their profitable clam-bake operation for the new summer season; a loving but at times highly uncertain relationship with her boyfriend Chris, steady but without specific commitments; her mother, widowed and still not quite back in the groove of the family business; and an awkward relationship (to say the least!) with the local police investigators, who have worked with her far too often since she returned to Maine from her high-pressure urban finance career, in order to help her family.

Barbara Ross skillfully sketches in the frame as she establishes Julia's "new normal" of ocean-based entrepreneurship and local networking (so if you're new to the series, you'll be fine jumping in here). As Julia greets a preservation architect climbing off a boat to view the burned-out mansion to appraise whether it can be saved, seasoned mystery readers will suspect a that the plot's about to leap forward via the "stranger coming to town" move. But to Julia's horror, the "stranger" turns out to be someone she knew in high school -- one of a group of mean girls who'd tormented and humiliated her. How can she possibly trust this architect to determine her family's future investment on the island?

On the other hand, the new arrival, known as Susan in the old days but now by her middle name, Wyatt, comes with a boyfriend of her own -- a reclusive billionaire whose mega yacht is about to be rehabbed in Julia's town of Busman's Harbor. The stresses and strains of the cast of characters ramp up sharply when the billionaire, the real stranger of the moment, is murdered.

I savored this scene Ross provided in a local club, where Julia sank into a seat for a bite to eat and could listen to speculation around her:
The theories abounded, everything from suicide to the Russian mafia. "He was a billionaire who made money on the banking collapse," someone said.

"It was the girlfriend," the husband of the chef declared.

"Why do you say that?" I kept my tone conversational, not challenging.

"It's always the girlfriend," he answered.

"I don't see how it benefits her," I countered.

"Maybe he was terrible in bed," someone offered.

"If that were a reason for murder, half the men at this table would be dead," the bartender's wife joked.

"What do mean, half?" a girlfriend of one of the band members deadpanned. Everybody laughed.
Soon, though, popular opinion circles around to blaming the yacht's chef, an old friend of Julia's. And she finds herself sticking up for both this friend, and the architect, in spite of the bad feeling from high school.

Meanwhile, multiple twists are unfolding around her. In a familiar angle of this series, Julia suddenly has reason to wonder about one of her boyfriend's past relationships -- and with time, will realize she's never asked enough questions to really understand his family background as well. In fact, there's a lot Julia hasn't questioned among her friends, and some of the revelations will bear on the murder -- and some will be false leads.

Ross's expertise in complicating the plot in highly believable ways shines in STOWED AWAY. When the solution to what's on board finally arrives, there are surprises right and left -- but every one of them makes perfect sense, if the right clues have been considered. STOWED AWAY is a prime traditional mystery, highly satisfying, and a lively and enjoyable addition to this quintessential New England series. (And yes, there are more great recipes at the back!)

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

Art Heist Thriller from Neil Olson, THE BLACK PAINTING

People still obsess about America's most well-known art heist: The one that took place at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 has not been solved and is often described as "must be connected to the Mob." Or some other massive underworld structure.

Other noted thefts involved the "Mona Lisa" (lost for two years) and two thefts of Edvard Munch's "The Scream." Two Renoirs and a Rembrandt left a Swedish museum and were recovered. And then of course there's the noted and extensive art plundering done by Nazi forces in Europe.

So when Neil Olson's new thriller THE BLACK PAINTING (Jan. 9 release) begins with a death in a coastal New England family, and coalesces around a missing painting by Francisco Goya, the tension increased with each twist of plot -- and we readers know something of what's at stake. Not only is there a dead grandfather (manipulative even after his lifetime) and an art heist ... there's obsession, with all its dark shadows and complicities.

Goya's art at its most intense depicted the "Disasters of War" -- dark, disturbing paintings that remind viewers of the horrors of the battlefields, which for him focused on the 1802 Peninsular War. But consensus is that the painter struggled with intense mental illness as well, and his final noted 14-image series, the "Black Paintings" (for both their appearance and topics), gives us a phenomenal view of terror within the soul.

Olson, whose first blockbuster novel The Icon also involved art theft (his early education was as an art historian), seizes the despair and fear involved in the Black Paintings to become the center of this new novel -- and invents a fifteenth painting that has found its way, perhaps illegally, to the home of the Morse family. Now the painting is gone, and the family patriarch's death creates further chaos among especially his grown grandchildren, each fragile in a separate way, and each still under the older man's thumb.

The thriller -- which is an intense page-turner -- comes to us through the eyes of the apparently most broken and frail of the cousins, Teresa, whose Spanish father, long gone, once connected deeply with the painting and its fierce owner. As the art historian in the family, she's also the one who understands the painting itself. She explains to her cousins:
"There's a painting in a private collection in New York which a few historians think is that lost one."

"But we know it's not," James insisted, "because Grandpa had it."

"Maybe they're both real," Teresa replied, not liking his agitation. "Maybe neither. I never saw the portrait. The point is ..." ...

"You haven't answered his question," Audrey pressed. "How did this demon get from Goya into the painting."
Fear not, this is far from a paranormal thread. As Teresa quickly answers, "You're being too literal. The demon is a metaphor for the trouble in his life."

And for their grandfather himself, no doubt. As the cousins struggle to escape the old man's domination, their own demons become increasingly evident. Can Teresa push past her physical ailments, her uncertain memories, and her confused understandings of her cousins, to find the answers she needs? Will she risk her life in doing so?

Acutely probing the damage of generations of manipulation and domination, Olson's mystery/thriller resonates more deeply than many in a similar genre, including such line-crossers as The Da Vinci Code -- at heart, this is a book about the demons within a family ... and whether they can be faced, or ever exorcised.

Quick comment about the cover art: Ignore it. It's got nothing to do with the story, and it's silly. The publisher, by the way, is Hanover Square Press -- yet another focused imprint of Harlequin and HarperCollins.

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