Monday, December 10, 2018

New Alaska Crime Fiction from Stan Jones, THE BIG EMPTY (Nathan Active #6)

Love? Money? Competition for a job? Or something more sinister? If Chukchi, Alaska, police chief Nathan Active can figure out the motive, he'll be halfway to solving the recent double murder of a young couple whose airplane's been sabotaged.

Because yes, in THE BIG EMPTY (co-authored by Patricia Watts), the death of this popular pair is quickly revealed to be intentional. Maybe if Nathan's friend Cowboy hadn't known the couple so well, they'd have accepted the idea of a flying accident -- accidents do happen. But it didn't make sense, and plain ordinary investigation by the pair shows a simple but clever way to defeat the plane's systems and good piloting.

The problem is, there's a lot of friction in Chukchi right now. And that, of course, is what makes a crime novel by Stan Jones so interesting: Isolated in distance and complicated by changing cultures, Chukchi provides a lot of reasons for people hurting each other instead of solving things together. Even in Nathan's home, there are layers of secrets and stresses: His wife Gracie, a survivor of terrible abuse, is pregnant with their child and not sure how (or whether) to handle it; their adopted daughter Nita, 13 and mixed up, isn't handling this well, either.

As a crime novel/police investigation, THE BIG EMPTY provides a clever set of small twists on its way to establishing that motive. But the biggest reasons to read the book are for the time spent "within" Alaska's Inupiat culture (handy to have a glossary at the start!), and the struggle over how a family forms and persists. Add the book to any Alaska shelf, but first to a stack of good winter reading, satisfying at the heart.

Once again, it's Soho Press bringing out the book -- available this week.

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

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Crime Fiction Gems for the Gift Season: Best Mysteries

Sometimes I miss a really great book from earlier in the year -- for which I kick myself -- but I lucked out a few weeks ago when one of the Inkshares team asked me to consider A GENTLEMAN'S MURDER by Christopher Huang as a holiday recommendation. The publishing team described it as close to Agatha Christie. But that only applies to the setting (England after World War I). It's actually closer to a Jacqueline Winspear, or a James Benn. If you're not familiar with those crime novelists yet, let's try it this way: If you'd been through a year of front-line service for England in the Great War, made it home safely and with honor, yet found yourself an endless target for racist slurs, even at the exclusive men's club where your family's credentials have made you a member ... would you leap into a crime investigation, to make sure the wrong person doesn't pay the consequences?

Of course you would -- if you're Lieutenant Eric Peterson, "late of the Royal Fusiliers," and your face shows clear evidence of your sophisticated and well-educated mother ... who happened to have been Chinese.

Peterkin's increasing involvement in a murder investigation forces the biases of his time and "class" to be revealed. But even as an "Oriental" by appearance, he's better off that the morphine addict he'll tangle with, or the malicious murderer whose traces can be found, one layer at a time.

Integrity, affection, loyalty to friends and relatives, they're all in this marvelous "amateur sleuth" detection novel. Although this is Huang's debut (via Inkshares), the book is written with both polish and pizzazz, and I already have four people I'd like to give it to, over the holidays. For more on this excellent "Golden Age" mystery, check out Huang's page at Inkshares.

I've already nominated Helene Tursten's dryly entertaining Nordic noir story collection, AN ELDERLY LADY IS UP TO NO GOOD, for "Best Stocking Stuffer." Tursten demonstrates that a tightly spun story, well told, is at least as memorable as a full-length crime novel. I am still marveling at what "Maud" manages to do with the simplest of devices and efforts ... deadly and smart! All you need is to have no compunctions about murder, and you, too, can do what Maud's done. A dandy touch for this book: Soho Press published it as a "tiny" volume that will slip comfortably into a stocking at the mantelpiece, or among the folds of a festive holiday table napkin. Good one! The review is here, if you'd like  more details.

September overflowed with good books hitting publication, and I never quite got around to mentioning Denise Swanson's DIE ME A RIVER. The book belongs in her "Welcome Back to Scumble River" series, and features school psychologist Skye Denison-Boyd (on maternity leave) and her police chief husband Wally. Although it's technically a "cozy" -- small-town setting, amateur sleuth, no gory violence, no need to double-check that the door's locked and windows are secure -- the writing is top notch, the pacing and twists deft and clever, and the finale highly satisfying. Don't worry about any possible spirit presence along the way. Give this to yourself for relaxing between holiday achievements. Or to your best friend, for similar purposes. It's a keeper.

The crime novel that got most deeply under my skin this year was THE NIGHT MARKET by Jonathan Moore. Inspector Ross Carver's effort to investigate a bloody, very gory murder turns into an exposé of how marketing and high technology may easily destroy what we most prize about being human. I plan to re-read this every six months or so, to remind myself why it's so important to keep reading, keep thinking critically, and find the very best storytellers who can open us to our own misconceptions and dangerous dead ends. I have three very close friends who may find a copy among their holiday gifts. Compelling, powerful, well told, and utterly unforgettable. The full review is here.


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

New Mormon (LDS) Mystery from Mette Ivie Harrison Tackles Immigration

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]


Reasons to read any mystery by Mette Ivie Harrison: (1) They’re set within the struggles of active Mormons in Utah (members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, an all-American historic treasure). (2) They face the grim reality of what death and other crimes do within a close community. (3) The protagonist, amateur sleuth and Mormon bishop’s wife Linda Wallheim, reveals her very vivid agony over the principles of her church, her faith, and her marriage, while drawn to rescuing victims of crime around her.

Not of This Fold is Harrison’s very to-the-moment probe of immigration issues and the treatment of darker skinned members within the church and its gospel, The Book of Mormon. Linda Wallheim tries to set a good example of how a person can question the church and its heritage, yet live within the bounds of faith in God. So at first she defends the gospel she lives with, but her difficult friend Gwen—a more outspoken and angry rebel than Linda—challenges such easy resolution:
“The idea that Latinos are the descendants of the Lamanites and that we as Mormons have a duty to bring the gospel to them, there’s an inherent superiority and colonialist attitude about it. I see it in the way that Greg Hope interacts with people every Sunday at church. He’s the white guy with the truth. They have to defer to him.”
Linda can’t deny the situation. And with Gwen, she’s quick to blame Greg Hope, who’s both a Mormon bishop (local congregation leader) and an employer of especially the Latinos in the region with uncertain immigration status. Of course, he’s assisting them in getting proper papers. Or is he?

When the Mexican mom of three small children is murdered, Linda and Gwen realize that their probing of the situation may have enflamed it further. Violating partnerships with their husbands, they struggle to investigate the roots of the crime, and of a local crime wave of breaking and entering that seems oddy parallel to Greg Hope’s security business among prosperous Mormons in the area.

As always, Harrison’s plotting is tight, her pacing compelling, and her attack on the morality of the Mormon Church sharp-clawed yet heartbreaking. As Linda continues to test the resilience of her marriage, her own faith, and her sense of responsibility to women in the area, questions and insights tumble and align. For readers of the Linda Wallheim Mystery Series, this is a must-read book.

On the other hand, those not already hooked by the characters and situation may struggle with Not of This Fold. Linda’s callous disregard of her husband’s concerns and her encouragement of risk for other women don’t make her very likeable. To the extent that a powerful mystery series shows hard-earned growth in the protagonist, Harrison is missing the magic ingredient this time around—Linda treats her husband poorly in many ways, similarly to what she did in the 2017 title in the series, For Time and All Eternities. When her husband Kurt finally demands that she drop her investigation, he says she’s got to listen to him this time:
’And if I don’t?’ I asked stubbornly. …

‘If you don’t, well …’ There was only a moment’s hesitation before he said, ‘I’m going to have to call both you and Gwen in for a disciplinary counsel.’

It wasn’t at all what I’d expected, and it made me wonder what was going on in his head. I wished I could be more sympathetic to him, but he was using his position bullying me, and I wasn’t about to put up with that.
Linda’s attitude toward Kurt eventually robs her of the chance to feel she’s solved the case and rescued someone, which also deprives the book of the satisfaction that a well-solved mystery usually conveys. Add this book to any shelf of Mormon mysteries, Utah settings, or women sleuths—but for maximum pleasure, read Harrison’s early titles first, to catch on to what she’s working to convey.

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