Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Swedish Noir Trilogy Concludes, SLOWLY WE DIE from Emelie Schepp

Special prosecutor Jana Berzelius tackles a traumatically gruesome set of serial killings in this third and final book in this noted Swedish crime fiction trilogy from Emelie Schepp. SLOWLY WE DIE pits Berzelius against what looks like a group of revenge murders. But who's doing them, and why? At first, all Berzelius knows is that the victims are people who usually get thanked, not murdered: they're first responders and other medically trained experts.

But then again, considering the murder weapon is a skillfully used scalpel, the murderer may also belong inside that world where life and death are negotiated daily.

The two earlier books in this series are Marked for Life  and Marked for Revenge. Although I read a lot of noir, this series gave me chills at a level that I didn't choose to put into detail in reviews, because of the underlying crime of child sexual abuse, graphically shown in the other two books, that drives Berzelius in her work. So yes, you'll get more of the haunting horror that Berzelius faces in this third book if you read the other two first.

Then again -- the situation this time is so terrifying ... Berzelius winds up sharing her home with a terrifying person from her past, who's blackmailing her into letting him stay:
When she'd left the apartment, Danilo had been standing in the hall, looking at her. His arms had been crossed and something resembling a sneer had been on his lips. But he hadn't said anything, and she hadn't, either. She had simply met his gaze and fantasized about putting her hands around his neck and squeezing until he was gasping for breath.

She would gladly break every bone in his body and would more than gladly erase him from the face of the earth. But killing him was not an option -- not yet.
Right, maybe you don't need to take it any darker than this third book already presents. And it gets more frightening -- although the finely tuned and paced writing may well drag you though this book at a very high speed. (It did, for me.)

Blurbs for the book, because it's "Scandinavian noir," compare it to Jo Nesbø's writing. But I'd pick Karin Fossum as the most comparable. Prepare to shudder.

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

YA Suspense Debut from Gia Cribbs, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SLOANE SULLIVAN

Sometimes first books can be outrageously good -- because the author is brilliant, or grabbed a clever idea, or has been working on that debut novel for years, making it better with every revision.

Don't know which of those reasons applies to THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SLOANE SULLIVAN by Gia Cribbs, a Maryland author. But with this YA crossover, she's definitely on target with finely tuned suspense, fast plot twists, and that special aspect that makes a "young adult" thriller so particularly haunting: a teenage protagonist whose knowledge of the situation, by definition, is incomplete -- she's just too inexperienced to seriously doubt the explanations of people close to her.

Sloane Sullivan is smart, though. Moving into a new school district just a few months before graduation, she's psyched to complete her senior year of high school and get on with college (depending, of course, on where she gets accepted). She's got an extra incentive to keep cool and make sure her friendships in this new location are responsible and calm: She's in witness protection, and the guy taking care of her says if she completes high school, she can actually NOT disappear for a change -- keep this latest "new name" and go out into the world without being controlled, monitored, watched over. At last!

Sloane's an expert in knowing when a situation might be closing in on her, putting her into danger. She's drilled for years in how to handle that, and she's used to needing to leave an identity behind at the drop of a hat (or textbook). And she's made a lot of sacrifices to stay safe:
Today was the start of a new week and my eighteenth birthday. ... I wanted to wear something to celebrate the occasion. The problem was my wardrobe, which consisted only of basics: jeans and T-shirts and hoodies in plain, solid colors. It made it easier every time we moved. Anything too distinctive wasn't allowed to travel with me, and I learned really quickly not to waste money on pretty things that got left behind.
She hides her cell phone, too, because it's only for emergencies. BIG emergencies.

So when the new school turns out to include her best friend from before she had to go into hiding, and she really ought to report that and brace for moving AGAIN (and changing names) -- Sloane decides to gamble on not being recognized. Her eye color hides under contacts; she's way older; she's got a new set of moves, from sports to music. Nobody will know, right?

When the scene goes wrong, Sloane needs to make fast choices on who to trust and how to survive. Count on some moments of intense danger, even deadly kinds -- and watch Sloane work out her next plan.

Great book for teens, and equally good for adults. It won't change your life -- but it will give you time off, wrapped up in adventure with a great teenager. What more could you want?

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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Blood Lust and Crime Solving, in HANGMAN from Jack Heath

Jack Heath (a pen name) is an Australian writer of a lot of books for kids -- and HANGMAN is the exception to his routine, a most-definitely-for-adults thriller that steps onto the stage often occupied by dark, frightening criminals like Dexter, or Garry Disher's Wyatt.  Except --

Except that FBI consultant Timothy Blake, who's been slaking his peculiar thirst with a deal that keeps him solving crimes for the officials in his life, is struggling to deal with a crime-solving partner for the first time, a woman who works for the FBI as a professional. When he discovers how easily he connects with this other crime solver (who has no idea of his dirty deal, or his tastes), he's caught in the classic really-shouldn't-bite-that-pretty neck dilemma of many a vampire in far more romantic situations.

And with that thread, Jack Heath has formed the triangle of forces working on and in his protagonist: a hunger for human flesh, a mind well shaped to investigation and intuitive grasp of crime, and a heart that's unexpectedly pushing into his affairs.

There are many "ugh" moments in this crime novel -- made worthwhile by Blake's first-person narrative and his battles to both stay alive and in some way stay on the right side of his own blood-drawn lines:
An hour later the bones and tendons have dissolved. I pick up a twisted wire coathanger and dip the hook into the acid. After a bit of fumbling, I've found the plug and pulled it out. ...

As I watch the dead man disappear down the plughole in a grey-brown whirlpool, like the Ambulance Killer before him, I feel like I should say something. A brief eulogy. A few kind words.

But when I eventually get caught and executed, no one will say anything nice about me.
Obviously this book won't suit all tastes. But I found it compelling, found myself hoping Blake could redeem his life, or his ways, or at least his investigation. If you often read the dark side, try HANGMAN. Jack Heath is well worth reading.

And this quirky offering comes from Hanover Square Press, home of an astoundingly wide range of innovative crime fiction.

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

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Second Bianca St. Ives Thriller from Karen Robards, THE MOSCOW DECEPTION

Move over, James Bond and Jack Reacher. There's a woman racing around the world using her genetically modified strength and hard-earned analytical skills to fight for her freedom and a bit more justice overall, and she's fast, smart, and determined. Welcome to the practiced hands of author Karen Robards:

Bianca St. Ives, a DC-area entrepreneur with an amazing tech team, just wants a chance to live and earn her living -- without the presence of her often creepy father figure and the criminal masterminds constantly searching for him. And oh yes, the American government and other special teams hunting for her, too, under her earlier names. Her biotech background, revealed fully in the first book of this thriller series, The Ultimatum, and sketched again here in THE MOSCOW DECEPTION, makes her a target for total disappearance (yes, death and more).

But Bianca's always been willing to take risks, and in this case that means getting back in touch with Mason Thayer -- not actually her father after all, but still the man who knows the most about her past and about the target on her back. The book's title refers to the trade Thayer proposes if she wants his help in surviving: an expert jewel theft she'll need to commit in Moscow, with another hand-picked team eager to share the financial rewards of what she has in mind.
If she was being targeted, if she was being hunted, her best bet might be to shut down the company, put the condo on the market, and go.

Could anybody say, run for your life?

The thought was unutterably depressing.

So don't think about it. For now, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Bianca's reasoning and her allies can only take her so far -- and then she'll need a bit better luck than she'd had lately. The question is, would reconnecting with the mysterious but physically alluring Colin Rogan, a presumed MI6 agent who's tracking her, improve her luck -- or send her spiralling into prison or worse?

Great summer reading, adventurous, quickly paced, and just wild enough to suspend skepticism and take the wild ride that a Bianca St. Ives thriller from Karen Robards (and Mira, Harlequin's mystery and thriller imprint) demands.

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

Delightful and Unusual Western, TIMBERLINE, from Maine Athor Matthew P. Mayo

In the same way that the "two for a quarter" steamy romance novels at the yard sale can all seem alike after a while, "Westerns" can seem pretty similar -- horses, tough men, women in long dresses and bonnets, and an unfortunate past abusive angle that diminished Native Americans to painful stereotypes.

You'll have to say goodbye to those past impressions in order to pick up the newest release from Maine author (and Lyndon State College, VT, graduate) Matthew P. Mayo. Third in the series featuring Roamer, a homely (even scary-looking) frontiersman, TIMBERLINE offers a winter adventure in crime-solving, chasing across a blizzard-swept landscape, and reliance on friendship.

Let's start with Roamer, whose appearance keeps most people away from him and deceives others into thinking anyone who's obviously suffered so many attacks from nature and humankind must be weak-minded. Actually, Roamer reads the classics, treasures his books, and is hauling a sack of them along on a short train trip that should end in meeting up with his mountain-man friend Maple Jack -- a raconteur of the first order.

On the railroad platform, ready to board, Roamer catches sight of an amazingly lovely young woman:
Faint purple smudges rested beneath her bright, wide eyes, a blue nearly as rich as her cloak, and wreathed by long lashes. She looked to be a young woman getting over a sickness that had somehow enhanced her beauty. At least that's the fanciful line of though I caught myself trailing. I averted my gaze as she turned and made her way through the little crowd, which parted before her as if she were a magical being.
Absorbed in contemplating this wonder, Roamer neglects to turn aside in time, and the young woman catches a full view of his own face: "She looked into my eyes and her mirth was replaced with the inevitable fear and pity. Revulsion would be next."

Yet because the young woman doesn't completely ignore him on board the train, and because the obvious criminal types on board who laugh at Roamer's book passion also seem determined to humiliate the young woman, Roamer unthinkingly takes her side, and soon finds himself battling the worst of an early blizzard in an effort to rescue her from villains.

There are worse aspects in play, besides his homely appearance, and unless someone as skilled and loyal as Roamer's friend Maple Jack can make an unexpected appearance, things look grim for the oversized if courageous frontiersman.

Swift twists of plot in Mayo's experienced hands turn Roamer's assumptions inside out. And though the scenes are soon piled deep with murdered men and horses, what will shape Roamer's success or failure has more to do with his own skills and his ability to read both the Western landscape and the outrageous greed of many an arrival on the scene.

Almost 200 pages long, TIMBERLINE (from Five Star/Cengage) represents one branch of the "new" Western -- nurturing courage and determination as the land becomes better understood -- and provides a glance into the soul of the person struggling to survive there.

Oh, I'm not suggesting this is a mystery -- there's little doubt about the murders that take place, and while Roamer needs to figure out what's going on under the surface, he won't do it by any mystery genre route -- but it's from a New England author carving a wide swath of good writing, and I want to tip a hat to it. Tuck a copy into your summer reading stack for a bit of diversity; see what the teens in your life think of its approach, too (nothing in here that will harm them). And no, there is nothing racist in this book, perhaps marking the slow, steady turn of the Western genre to a more honest (if still romantic) appraisal of our nation's Westward expansion. Open to enjoyment across genders, too.

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

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Classic Thriller, Brilliant in Its Twists, WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT by Sandra Block

Take all the horror stories you've read in the "real news" about sexual molesting at frat houses and other university clubs. Add to it the humiliation and shock of a gang-rape victim who can't remember what happened, thanks to being drugged -- but who arrives at a hospital wounded and damaged in every part of her body, and who eventually finds her office mates watching a video of her assault.

That's the baseline of WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, one of the best classic thrillers I've read this year. But author Sandra Block goes way beyond the suspense and desperate desire for crime solving that this situation inspires when she provides for Dahlia, barely functioning as a paralegal, to find the support she needs from a shy "IT" guy (programmer) named James -- whose "differentness" is captured in the term "Asperger's syndrome." Except for the highly pertinent fact that the term misses out on both his persistence and his tender ability to care for Dahlia. Which is, of course, an astounding situation for both of them, but especially for Dahlia, whose effort to kill herself some time ago made complete sense.

The video's arrival online marks the moment Dahlia chooses to move from ultimate victim to a force for justice. Not necessarily legal justice -- but a fierce and furious balancing of the scales against at least four of the men who raped her and made fun of her painful abasement.

No wonder James seems like an amazing answer to her needs: On his body, unlike the tattoos on Dahlia's, is a string of Japanese characters spelling the word for "revenge."

I could not put this book down. The twists, the suspense, the emotional connections building against the odds between Dahlia and James -- it stunned me. There are also interludes of flashback to the year of the rape, like this one in Dahlia's voice:
It is a bit shocking, but I love my tattoo.

It's the one thing I've managed to accomplish over the last couple of months in Cambridge. Ink. It was like therapy. My tattoo artist, Claire, asked why I wanted a tattoo. I told her that I wanted to take my body back. And she said "Cool" quite simply, and that was that.

We talked. Well, I talked, and she listened. It hurt, sure, but I really didn't mind. It was my idea. My pain. And while she etched survivor on my arm and surrounded it with darkness turning into lightness, I felt better. Tattoo therapy, maybe. It was better than that Rae-Ann woman anyway, who just drank tea the whole time.

I don't try to explain any of this to my mom.
What intrigues me most about WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT is the way it shatters the genre conventions so successfully. Face it, a gang-rape victim turning to revenge -- that should be darkness all the way. But Block commands a rising and wakening from her plot and characters, and the ending is almost too tender to bear -- but not really. It fits, as inevitable as it is surprising.

Don't let the brutal crime involved keep you away from grabbing a copy of this book (new from Sourcebooks Landmark). It's a compelling read, a memorable one, and, dare I say, a lifesaver. Or so I mean light-saver? Yeah, like that. (By the way, it's blurbed by Lisa Scottoline, and deserves it.)

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

Bittersweet Humor, Taut Crime Pacing, in LONDON RULES from Mick Herron

Mick Herron's Slough House series has already drawn a pair of CWA (Crime Writers' Association, UK) silver daggers -- and with this fifth of the full-length "MI5/6" style crime novels in the series, he's hitting some of his best notes yet.

Any reader of John Le Carré already knows the term "Moscow Rules": the keep-safe guidelines for espionage on foreign turf, where every stranger can be ready to sabotage your effort or your life. In a brilliant an enteraining twist, Mick Herron provides "London Rules" -- the conventions of the dog-eat-dog tangle of British espionage agencies competing for government favor, funding, and job security along the Thames and in the adjacent terrain.

LONDON RULES opens (after a dramatic mass murder preface) with an artful discussion of the daylight's revelations in Slough House, home to failed domestic espionage agents who can't be fired -- but can be made supremely miserable and humiliated by repeated assignments to tasks involving phone bills, website listings, and such. In fact, the tiny pocket of underemployment would be an utter failure and disgrace, were it not for its leader, the bright but rather disgusting (verbally, in appearance, and through massive farting) Jackson Lamb. Because Lamb may have the Service's supreme screwballs. But when they get to Slough House, they become HIS screwballs, to torment and mock in conversation and duties ... and to align and operate under the radar when he so chooses, protected by his massive influence, connections, and, sigh, persistent blackmail.
[Lamb's office] is cramped and furtive, like a kennel, and its overpowering theme is neglect. Psychopaths are said to decorate their walls with crazy writing, the loops and whorls of their infinite equations an attempt at cracking the code their life is hostage to. Lamb prefers his walls to do their own talking, and they have cooperated to the extent that the cracks in their plasterwork, their mildew stains, have here and there conspired to produce something that might amount to an actual script ... a moving finger had write before deciding, contrary to the wisdom of the ages to rub out again.
Such pretentious teasing prose is quickly balanced by a sequence of disasters and threats that forces Jackson Lamb to place his "agents" back into play, even as he mocks the chances that they might succeed.

But it's necessary, because as Lamb's rather unpleasant agent Shirley Dander -- on her 62nd drug-free day -- discovers, someone is trying to murder her fellow agent Roderick ("Roddy") Ho. And the grotesque linkages in Slough House mean if one agent's at risk of sudden death, so are they all.

Soon Lamb and his able (if a lot crazy) assistant Catherine Standish take Shirley's side. They even confront one of the superiors trying to shut them down, Emma Flyte, as Flyte argues about that opening mass murder and its sequelae:
"So let's say he's right. Even if the Park [the active security force] don't listen, tell them about it and you've covered your back."

[Lamb responds] "Yeah, not really. Because if these guys are laying waste to the country using a script the Service wrote, there are few lengths the Park won't go to to cover it up. And anyone who knows about it will be in the firing line. Which includes you, if you'd lost count. Don't make the mistake of thinking you'll be safe when they start playing London Rules. Because you're not a suit, Flyte. You're a joe [agent]. And joes are expendable." ... Lamb shrugged. "I'm in no hurry to be elsewhere. But what I'm appealing to are your survival instincts."
Lamb's right. The question is, with London Rules pushing the powerful to protect their own backsides and shove everyone else into the line of fire, how can the Slough House team -- the Slow Horses -- possibly get out of this, both alive and employed?

Series readers already know how quickly Herron can tie these burned-out and substance-abusing agents into knots that are somehow also hilarious, just the way one of Lamb's farts would be if it took place in certain higher offices. LONDON RULES pushes the stakes and the twisted hilarity higher than ever,

Oh sure, you can plunge into LONDON RULES without reading the earlier books first -- think of yourself as stepping through Alice's mirror or down the rabbit hole, and roll with it. Then grab all four preceding titles (reviews here) and have yourself a explosive week of head-shaking, food-spitting laughter.

And somehow or other, Herron always pulls the plot lines back into place in time for a highly satisfying denoument. This time -- well, it's explosive in terms of what's ahead for the series. But if this is your first Slough House book, you'll have to watch really closely to see what the hidden hand is up to as the book reaches its finale.

Herron's books usually reach publication in the United Kingdom first, and Soho Crime (an imprint of Soho Press) brings them across the "pond." Thank goodness.

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