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.