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.