Sunday, November 10, 2019

Mystery Publisher to Keep an Eye On: Encircle Publications

At  the New England Crime Bake this weekend, the two (married to each other) people who "are" Encircle Publications, Eddie Vincent and Cynthia Brackett-Vincent, shared perceptive insight on today's mystery publishing business. Just as much in flux as any other market segment, it's also providing healthy new forms, and Encircle captures one of the most intriguing: a small to mid-sized publishing house where authors are significant, strong writing matters, and this much-loved genre thrives.

In a season when several small-ish mystery publishers have either folded or been gobbled up by the big franchises, here's a chance to pay attention -- and pay some support -- to a rising star.

Currently the mystery author list at Encircle includes:

Thursday, November 07, 2019

For the Gift List: Cara Black, MURDER IN BEL-AIR

It's time to shop for holiday gifts. One book for me, one book for you. Isn't that fair enough, from one book lover to another?

Cara Black's MURDER IN BEL-AIR, number 19 in her astonishing series featuring single-mom Parisian detective Aimée Leduc, may be her best yet. With a robustly complex plot that involves the disappearance of Aimée's own mother, as well as others, this crime novel plunges into both the Leduc family complications and the criminal enterprises of the City of Lights. And it's full of moments that capture this stylish detective at her most determined an active, like this:
She'd struck a chord. Thrown him off-balance.

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"Arles." His answer came too quick. And she'd never heard a Provençal accent like his. Not even close to that musical patois.

She saw him tense, and his lips moved—he was whispering something.

Merde. Was he wired?

With no more of a plan than to get the hell out, she accelerated, veering left as she kicked straight out with her right foot. Counted on the element of surprise. Her stiletto heel got him in the thigh. Wobbling over the cobblestones in the rain, the scooter shot forward and out of the courtyard.

Right into traffic. Her handlebars scraped a van, and she almost lost her balance. But somehow she kept going, weaving in the downpour with a cacophony of horns blaring behind her.
Black's author note at the start connects the plot to her own mother, and her lithe depictions of strong vibrant women in MURDER IN BEL-AIR contributes to the story's swift action and bright undercurrents. No need to read the other 18 titles first ... get this one for yourself for holiday-season relaxing, and give a copy to one of your best friends as well.

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

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Strong Stand-Alone from Garry Disher, UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS (Australia)

Australian author Garry Disher now has more than 50 books to his credit, but is not yet well known in America. Thanks to Soho Crime, his two crime series—the gritty yet often tender Hal Challis books and very very dark "noir" of the Wyatt series—have mostly traveled to the United States. In July, Soho Crime (the crime fiction imprint of Soho Press) brought out a stand-alone from this author: UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS.

The book's closer in tone to the Hal Challis series than to the Wyatt books. Detective Alan Auhl, now an acting sergeant, is much older than most of the force and has been pulled back into action to tackle the cold cases. He is clearly wounded, himself. His former wife sometimes visits, but not always to share affection with him; in addition, Auhl owns a boarding house that caters to people with hard-luck stories yet decent hearts, among them an abused woman named Neve and her young daughter Pia, still being emotionally strangled by their ties to Pia's father. While Auhl struggles to help Neve and Pia find a position of strength, he's also tangled up in the cold case of John Elphick, whose daughters insist he was murdered, and with a newly discovered body that clearly dates back to a much earlier death, as well as a murderous doctor—and maybe it's just as well he's so busy. Otherwise he'd drown in the grief and angst of his boarders.

The delight of Disher's investigation novels is the depth he unfolds in his investigators, and UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS is a great example -- and also, for that reason, a good starter if you haven't yet read any of this Down-Under author. Here's a sample:
As the evening deepened, Auhl brooded. Men like Kelso, Fanning—Alec Neill. Their assumptions,  cronyism, power, sense of entitlement. Pre-emptive strike kinds of men: they seized the advantage while the rest of the world was thinking things through. Like Neill with his accusations against his wife,  thought Auhl. And as soon as we move against him he'll surround himself with lawyers and colleagues. ... Quite suddenly, a deeper unease settled into Auhl. Saturday morning. Janine Neill, pale, dizzy, uncoordinated. She had speculated blithely that Neill might shoot her or push her off a rock, but what if he'd poisoned her? Surely he couldn't be that arrogant? But he'd succeeded three times before Maybe he thought he was untouchable. ... [Auhl] dressed in dark clothing, backed his elderly Saab out of the garage and headed across to East Melbourne, heart jumpy and mouth dry.
Like Karen Slaughter, Tucker Coe (a Westlake nom de plume), or Louise Penny, Disher gives us an investigator whose sense of his own belonging to the world depends on taking action against the cruel, malicious, and criminal. Thanks to his deep experience and careful craft, UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS is one of the most satisfying mysteries of 2019.

[More Disher reviews here.]

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

Friday, November 01, 2019

New from Lee Child, BLUE MOON (Jack Reacher)

At a rough count, this is number 25 from Lee Child, of which 23 involve Jack Reacher. Count on BLUE MOON for rattling good adventure, casual violence, and those moments of thoughtful appraisal and deep kindness that make a Jack Reacher thriller so different from the average shoot-'em-up. I confess, I pre-order each one and look forward to a couple of evenings of true relaxation.

In BLUE MOON, Reacher's riding on a long-distance bus when he realizes an elderly man on the bus has become a crime target. And you know Reacher, right? He gets off the bus when the almost-victim does, tries to intervene ... and gets caught up in a city-wide crime wave.

It's hard to avoid spoilers, so let's just say there are Albanians and Ukrainians, and some effect of Russians -- and a remarkable woman, and some great brothers-in-arms moments.

What I do want to specifically mention is part of the brothers-in-arms conversation on pages 182-183, when Reacher outlines his approach to the potentially violent confrontation he's headed into:
"First I need to understand what they're saying in the texts, and then I need to use what I learn, in order to figure out what to do next. No combat readiness yet. No warnings necessary."

"Suppose what you learn is that it's hopeless?"

"Not an acceptable outcome. Can only be a failure of planning."
Now that I've noticed this, I'll be re-reading earlier Reacher titles, looking for the same sort of wry comment on military prep and thinking. It comes up again later in BLUE MOON, when the very interesting woman (yes, Reacher seems to only connect deeply with strong women) asks Reacher whether he actually believes -- as he told someone earlier -- than some day he will fail:
"It's something they teach you in the army. The only thing under your direct control is how hard you work. In other words, if you really, really buckle down today, and you get the intelligence, the planning, and the execution each a hundred percent exactly correct, then you are bound to prevail."
And in some ways, of course, Reacher does. Readers of the series know that won't make him immune from pain and loss, but ... it makes a heck of a good story.

If you've never read one of these -- go back as far as you can in the series (see, and read your way forward, for the most enjoyment.

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

Monday, October 21, 2019

One of the Deepest Reads of the Season: SARAH JANE from James Sallis

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

“Lit with insight, affection, and the deep tenderness that can accompany long-term grief, Sallis’s Sarah Jane is that most unusual of mysteries: one that investigates the soul, walking.”

Author James Sallis (Drive; The Killer Is Dying) is often called a master of noir, so it’s no surprise that Sarah Jane is a crime novel. But tenderness? Intense personal loss as felt by a vulnerable woman? By the fourth page, Sarah Jane’s revealing the hole in her heart, on the pages of a journal meant only for herself, as she recalls her one and only, very private experience of childbearing:

“Six hours after I had her, two or three in the morning, they told me they’d done all they could but my baby had died. They brought her for me to hold, wrapped in a pink blanket. Her face was ghostly white. Had she ever really lived? An hour after they left, I was gone.”

Sarah Jane’s got a military past as well as a hardscrabble youth, but most importantly she’s had firsthand experience of how a “good man at heart” can become abusive of a woman. For instance, there’s “R.H.,” who believed in what he was doing, and in himself, but couldn’t handle when things didn’t go the way he wanted to. “He felt his world unraveling, loose ends flying every whidch way That grinds on year after year, you see the worst of people day by day, you change.”

This kind of insight works in Sarah Jane’s favor when she becomes a small-town sheriff, the kind who both understand the criminals on her turf and knows how to catch them. Tough and private, she keeps most of her past secret from even her closest colleagues. And as her story unwinds, there’s also her loyalty to the people that, against her will, she comes to love – and that’s what drives her. In a rough little rural town like Farr, where she settles almost against her will, any vulnerability in your heart can threaten your life, one night or another.

Sarah Jane’s narrative of her past and her confrontation with the present are interrupted by flashbacks to her childhood on a chicken farm, and by reflections like this: “All stories are ghost stories, about things lost, people, memories, home, passion, youth, about things struggling to be seen, to be accepted, by the living.” Does she count herself as ghost or living? How can anyone walk forward with such sorrow and loss?

Little by little, one sideways reference or clue after another, the crime at the heart of the book emerges. And a silence builds, as large as the loss that Sarah Jane’s still carrying. Is it Sarah Jane’s own, or does it belong to one of the dead men she’s seen?

Lit with insight, affection, and the deep tenderness that can accompany long-term grief, Sallis’s Sarah Jane is that most unusual of mysteries: one that investigates the soul, walking.

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

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Brief Recaps: Eliot Pattison's BONES OF THE EARTH, Ang Pompano's WHEN IT'S TIME FOR LEAVING, Michael Stanley with SHOOT THE BASTARDS

"Life on life's terms" meant missing out on some reviewing earlier this year. So here are some brief recaps of books you may want to stock in for the cold weather!

BONES OF THE EARTH (Minotaur) is the tenth and final Inpector Shan Tao Yun mystery from Eliot Pattison. Pattison's first in this series, Skull Mantra, won an Edgar. Both of those, plus the locale in what was once the Hidden Kingdom and remains a controversial region taken over politically by China, are great reasons to read this finale.

Shan's position as a former Chinese official who's become a determined Buddhist places him at a spiritual sweet spot for the investigation of ancient shrines underlying the criminal efforts that soon threaten him and his son. It's fascinating to watch the threads drawn together, and there's hardly a moment without suspense, as Shan navigates a series of traps and investigates on both the mundance and the spiritual level. Pattison's deft twisting of the plot strands to reach a fitting resolution of the series makes for an excellent read.

Ang Pompano is a long-time active member of Sisters in Crime, nationally and in the New England chapter. Yes, there are "brothers" in the organization! His stories have been anthologized, and he's developed academic themes, too, including on detective fiction. WHEN IT'S TIME FOR LEAVING (Encircle Publications) is his debut mystery novel. And what an exhilarating, well-paced adventure it provides! Disgruntled police detective Al DeSantis, leaving behind multiple discouragements in New Haven, CT, plans to relocate to sunny Los Angeles. But a phone call from Mrs. Greenleaf at the Blue Palmetto Detectie Agency in Georgia topples his assumptions of life by letting him know his long-gone father is still alive, and entering a nursing home. "You own a detective agency and a home on Ava Island," Mrs. Greenleaf says. Oddly, though, even though he now owns it ... it seems like she's in charge.

While Al tries to work out what's going on, murder moves into his life, along with Max, an attractive and very sharp female detective who seems to be his official boss. Meanwhile his father, with rapidly increasing dementia, repeatedly goes AWOL from the nursing home. In a series of side-splitting scenes reminiscent of Donald Westlake at his best, Al and his dad become partners in trying to stay alive. Grab a copy of this (hopefully) first of many more to come, and enjoy the sense of being ahead of the crowd in spotting a strong new talent.

Michael Stanley (pen name for a writing duo) already has an award-winning series featuring Detective Kubu. With SHOOT THE BASTARDS (Poisoned Pen/Sourcebooks), Stanley launches a new protagonist: investigative journalist Crystal ("Crys") Nguyen, of Vietnamese heritage but raised and based in Minnesota. In a classic "Livingston searches for Stanley" move, she persuades National Geographic to assign her to complete the rhino poaching story of her missing colleague, Michael Davidson -- and, if possible, to locate Davidson (dead or alive) as a sidebar to the main investigation.

Crys is soon hopelessly muddled about who's a good guy and who's not, and in a chase for information that takes her into the South African bush, north to Geneva, Switzerland, off to Vietnam, and finally back to African landscape that's already become part of her. She's strong and skilled with a light bolt-action rifle, from training at home in winter biathlons -- but how will that stack up against organized criminals with automatic weapons and a huge cash incentive?

Great to see this lively new series, and to know in advance that Michael Stanley's seasoned mystery writing will carry Crys into high risk and tension, challenging all her thinking and action.

Watch for a few more of these, before reviews of the November releases ahead!

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.
The newest South Korea mystery from Martin Limón, G.I. CONFIDENTIAL, is at once a tight and fast-paced crime investigation—military police Sueño and Bascom are under fierce pressure to ID and halt the serial bank robberies that are painting US occupying forces as murderous criminals, thanks to an out-of-control GI contingent—and a hilarious tangle for three, as the two men find themselves repeatedly bested by tabloid reporter Katie Byrd Washington.

Before the reporter engages action, though, catch up with the stresses of the 1970s as the investigators walk the challenging line of respecting the local Korean National Police, and the demands of their own officers. George Sueño, who's achieved speaking fluency in Korean (a very unusual asset for an American then!), partners with the more impulsive Ernie Bascom. They add up as an effective team, but sometimes the requirements are odd ones:
As the GI and injured Korean policeman stood awkwardly in front of one another, I translated ... But I translated his words into Korean with quite a bit of diplomatic license. It came out as something like, I'm sorry I hit you, I shouldn't have done it, and I'll be sure to show more respect for Korea and Korean law in the future. Both [Korean police commander] Mr. Kill and Officer Oh realized that my translation was less than exact but kept their faces impassive.

The wounded Korean officer paused for a moment, making sure that everyone absorbed this abject apology from an obnoxious foreigner. Finally, he nodded his head and barked an order. ... Quickly, the two GIs, mumbling to themselves, climbed back into their truck ... and sped away.

Mr. Kill told me, "You should be in the State Department."

"Every American soldier is an ambassador for their country," I said.
One situation defused for the moment -- but a lot worse ahead, as the tabloid reporter drags the investigators into a situation that could seriously tarnish the reputation of several US officers. Or, come to think of it, ignite a big war.

Limón crafts an exploration of corruption and sex scandals, while creating a highly entertaining snap-trap for Sueño and Bascom, as slippery journalist Katie Washington sets them up to take the fall. When the story began to threaten armed conflict, I jumped for some Korean history and confirmed that what seems like wild exaggeration in Limón's timeline is actually reflects the chaos and risk of that time. It's a lot of fun to surf the action through the down-to-earth assessments and effective counterstrikes of Limón's characters.

This is the 14th in the series, and one of the best—shelve it with historical fiction, or with (military) police procedurals, or with Good Crime Fiction to Read Again. As long as the plot's tight and the clues are sensible, the heart of a good mystery is in the characters and the action. G.I. CONFIDENTIAL is a winner on both counts.

Like Lee Child? James R. Benn? Barbara Cleverly? Jacqueline Winspear? This series shows the same fine storytelling, with an excellent sense of pace and satisfaction.

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

Saturday, October 19, 2019

One of Today's Best British Traditional Mystery Series, from Elly Griffiths

[originally published by the New York Journal of Books]

“A well-turned-out, exciting, and at times downright nail-biting traditional mystery, with satisfying emotional resonance.”

Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway series enters its 11th title with The Stone Circle, featuring the single-parent archaeological specialist and DCI Harry Nelson, who’s been gradually revealed to his family and his community as the father of Ruth’s child. The pair met and had a brief passionate connection that resonated into deeper emotions, but DCI Nelson was, and is, very married, and the chances of him leaving his wife were always slim.

Now, an anonymous letter threatens to bring back the violence that once brought Ruth and Nelson together. It looks like it’s written by the criminal they battled—a man who’s quite dead. But if that’s the case, who’s writing the letters that continue to arrive?

While the crime-solving team struggles with what the threats mean, Ruth gets looped into the tension too, since the letter writer refers to a “stone circle,” one of the prehistoric religious sites in her region. Distracting her from actually tackling the clues is a new factor: Nelson’s wife Michele is about to add a new baby to his life, and Ruth is realistic enough to see that the baby will crush any remaining chance that Nelson would come to her and her daughter. Not that she wants him to. Well, not really. But it would be nice to have him desire to do so, wouldn’t it?

Griffiths spins a complex crime tale that invades multiple levels of time, historic and otherwise. Her greatest strength is the way she sketches, then delicately shade in, the very human nature of investigators and the way their ability to see the relevant strands of clues, motives, and opportunities is shaped by their personal lives. In the long run, one of the crime officers who persists in following her hunches will be the one to turn the case. But with enough warning to actuallu stop the perpetrator from a new murder? It’s doubtful.

Series fans will appreciate the strong presence in The Stone Circle of Cathbad, a druid and dad, along with his daughter Madeleine, now a journalist with dreams of investigative work herself. But of course the tension ramps up most when the threatening letters begin to rope DCI Nelson and Ruth back together around their daughter Kate and more:

“Nelson’s phone buzzes as he goes up the stairs. He sees ‘Ruth’ on the screen and so waits until he’s in his office to call back.

“’Ruth? What is it? Is it Katie?’

“A deep sigh. ‘No, it’s not Kate. It’s me. I’ve had a letter.’ …

“As Ruth reads, Nelson can almost feel his blood pressure rising. He remembers the letters arriving when Lucy went missing and then later with Scarlet. The same mocking, erudite, menacing tone. She called from the depths and you answered. It’s the same person, he’s sure of it.”

Because The Stone Circle loops back to Ruth and Nelson’s past, Griffiths provides plenty of back-story for new readers of the series. And the combination of an amateur sleuth who’s a professional investigator of graves, Ruth, with a trained police investigator, Nelson, keeps the pace sharp and quick, the insights clever, and the plot twists highly enjoyable.

Trust Elly Griffiths for a well-turned-out, exciting, and at times downright nail-biting traditional mystery, with satisfying emotional resonance and smart current issues raised.

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

Friday, October 18, 2019

Terrifying New Crime Fiction, THE CHAIN, from Adrian McKinty

[ originally published by the New York Journal of Books ]

“The Chain will unforgettably haunt you even if you just read the first chapter—so you might as well lock the doors, bite your nails, and read it all.”

Irish author Adrian McKinty has built a pair of crime investigation series, as well as a handful of stand-alones. Always dark with an undertone of grit and desperation, he’s also seasoned his compelling fiction with a generous twist of wry humor.

But leave the frivolous behind: The Chain is any parent’s horror story, spelled out in twisted and lurid detail. The only way to read it is to be very sure it’s not going to happen to you and yours—but McKinty doesn’t leave much room for that certainty. It’s tempting to wonder whether this increasing noir tension results in part from the author’s relocation to New York City: away from the direct effects of “The Troubles,” and into the binding net of American urban life and menace.

At the outset of The Chain, divorced mom Rachel O’Neill learns her young daughter Kylie has been kidnapped—learns it from a disembodied voice on her phone, followed by a call from the mother who committed the crime. How can she get her daughter back? Money, yes, but the ransom is the smallest part of the task: She must kidnap another child, set up the same threat scenario, keep the “chain” of kidnaps going. Or else her daughter will die. The mom who’s taken her child prisoner has done so under the same threat, for her own child. And on it goes.

Most Americans and many Europeans will have received a “chain letter” at some point. They used to come in the mail, with the names of a few friends who waited for you to send them a recipe, or something similar. Their more threatening form arrived with the Internet: “Send this to five people and get rich; fail to send it, and you’ll have bad luck, bad karma, horrible results.”

McKinty, in his note at the end of the book, admits to a fascination from fifth grade with such poisonous threats. And by melding it to a dreaded Mexican concept of “exchange kidnapping” and his own twist on terror, he designed this long-term threat—then set it on Plum Island, a resort section of coastal Massachusetts that can morph to an ominously barren region in the non-tourist season.

The exhilaration of a crime ride with McKinty is that he never stay just on the surface. His jabs to the underworld aren’t just in terms of menacing criminal figures; they reach the darkness in all of us. Detached now from his Irish setting (he moved to New York City with family), he pries open how humans react to evil. One moment Rachel’s the shower, trying fruitlessly to “get clean.” The next, she’s calling BS on a quote from Camus, “in the depth of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” And she confronts her soul:

“All she feels is pain and misery. Fear above all. And yes, this is the depth of winter all right. This is the middle of the Ice Age at the sunless North Pole. My daughter has been kidnapped and to get her back I’m going to have to grab a sweet little boy from off the street and threaten him and his family and mean it. Mean it when I say I’m going to kill him because if I don’t I’ll never see Kylie again.”

And of course, if and when Rachel obeys, she doesn’t know whether she can live with herself afterward. Or whether her daughter will accept her if she does this.

McKinty’s fierce twists of narrative and pressure create one highly believable surprise after another, for a compelling up-to-date twist on crime and threat. The Chain will unforgettably haunt you even if you just read the first chapter—so you might as well lock the doors, bite your nails, and read it all.

But don’t recommend it to parents of small children!

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

Crime Reporter in Detroit? Great Setup, Now in Its Fourth Title, from Jane Haseldine

[originally published by the New York Journal of Books]

“Fans of Karen Slaughter will find Haseldine’s crime fiction rewarding, and it’s also a good balance to another excellent Detroit series from Stephen Mack Jones; of course there’s also a hint of Loren D. Estleman’s Motor City mysteries here, too.”

The fourth in Jane Haseldine’s Julia Gooden mystery series, You Fit the Pattern, resumes after her major scoop of discovering the truths in her own family: her much-loved brother’s childhood abduction, his killer (found by Julia 30 years after the crime), and the devastating role their father played in the crimes. 

Meanwhile, active crimes in Detroit have spun out of control while Julia was swamped in her own detection. There’s a killer seizing woman joggers, creating a pattern of highly planned and horrific deaths for them. When Julia realizes the serial killer is picking out women who resemble her, enacting over and over a both a passion for her and a deadly obsession, she can’t help feeling responsible—and so, driven to take risks to bring the murderer out of hiding.

Also at stake, of course, is the safety of Julia’s young sons, already traumatized enough by the threats that her career has brought into their lives. Thank goodness for her motherly housekeeper Helen and for Julia’s increasing closeness to Detective Raymond Navarro, both doing their best to keep her safe.

But when the killer’s routine turns out to include a voodoo symbol, as well as items that make it clear he’s stalking Julia and her family, things rapidly get very creepy. Soon the killer even has a nickname: the Magic Man Killer.

The one plus to this escalating mode of threat is, it pulls Julia and Navarro closer:

“Navarro sighed and ran his fingers in frustration through his thick shock of dark hair.

“’You need to do something for me. I’m not going to let you and your boys hang solo with all this going down. I checked with my apartment manager. He has a vacant unit next to mine … And I’ll be right there. I’m not going to discount that the killer knows where you live. … please think about it.’

“’Okay. We’ll do it.’

“’Just like that? I don’t have to fight you on this?’

“’Not this time. The Magic Man Killer has got a direct line to me. I don’t know how close it is, but I need to make sure he doesn’t get anywhere near my family.’”

But of course, safety’s not that simple, especially when Julia’s own drive to investigate and get the story become tangled with the creeps tracking her and trying to lure her in. Yes, that’s creeps, plural. When the nasty part of the world opens up, there’s way too much evil in there.

Haseldine’s narrative is strong and direct, a good fit for her protagonist. With this fourth in the series, Haseldine has clearly grown more adept at holding all the cards in her hands, from threats to red herrings to cop-shop interference and the loyalties that make live worth living. Fans of Karen Slaughter will find Haseldine’s crime fiction rewarding, and it’s also a good balance to another excellent Detroit series from Stephen Mack Jones; of course there’s also a hint of Loren D. Estleman’s Motor City mysteries here, too.

There’s no need to read the preceding titles first (The Last Time She Saw Him; Duplicity; Worth Killing For). But the satisfaction of seeing this sometimes gritty and always fast-paced series maturing makes it worth gathering all four titles on the shelf, and watching for the next one. 

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

Spooky, Dark, Great for the Season: Short "Noir" Collected by Lawrence Block

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

“Serious stories, taking in the main a hard line on reality, and any gray scale would show them on the dark end of the spectrum.”

When mystery author extraordinaire Lawrence Block gathers stories for an anthology, top names mingle with newcomers among the authors he taps on the shoulder. His own mysteries have dipped deeply into the classic New York City and Los Angeles dark police procedurals, but also skated and danced with merriment at times. Obviously, its the darkness that Block wants for At Home in the Dark—starting with a chatty Foreword that reviews the history of “noir” and explains why he’s avoided that term in his title.

But you can’t avoid the genre, since each story here features some aspect of the unsettling, creepy, menacing, and lock-the-door disturbing. There are 17, and it’s worth grabbing this collection just for the sake of reading another mystery by Joyce Carol Oates. But Joe R. Lansdale, Nancy Pickard, Jim Fusilli, and Duane Swierczynski will also draw fans. And part of the fun (if being alternately scared and despairing is fun!) is the contrast among their styles, as well as the surprises in the directions each one chooses.

Loosely speaking, James Reasoner’s story is a Western (but dark!), Joe Hill’s is horror, and Joe R. Lansdale jumps to an unexpected dystopian future.

But then there’s Elaine Kagan’s story “Hot Pants,” which launches this collection. It opens in a nursing home where everyone’s losing whatever marbles they entered with, yet it’s where Lucinda Conte needs to keep her failing father housed and cared for. Grim motivation for working in an Italian restaurant with good tips … and a kitchen culture straight out of the #metoo nightmares. See whether you would have predicted the final sentence, and the way the last action ties back to the title.

What would you guess a story called “The Eve of Infamy” would be about? Hint: Think FDR and his famous speech. Here’s a taste of the story, by Jim Fusilli:

“No, he decided, knee-deep in debris. He’d wait out the war and go back to the Bronx. The streets were in his blood. He knew the rooftops and alleyways. Theft came naturally, violence did too. If the next few years broke his way, he could bankroll a future, playing steady amid the turmoil. Then he’d go back home a champion. He’d aim high. The cops wouldn’t dare touch him.”

In other words, don’t look for happy endings in this collection. A few “just desserts” maybe, but even those are grim. Block’s roundup proves that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t unusual, just longer than usual for this genre. Brace for violence, sexual and otherwise. Don’t read this if you’re on the brink of depression, as it might tip you in. But if you’re a survivor of many a dark crime novel, there’s great pleasure in these concise, tight, and twisted tales.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of At Home in the Dark is seeing the collection as insight into Lawrence Block’s preferences, amply described in his “rant” at the opening. His description of the noir collections in vogue is spot on: “They are serious stories, taking in the main a hard line on reality, and any gray scale would show them on the dark end of the spectrum.”

Here’s one more classic snippet to treasure from the collection, from the story “The Cucuzza Curse” by Thomas Pluck: “Joey was here because he knew people, and he knew people. … He had a reputation as a reasonable if foppish good earner with an even temper, respected by men of violence.”

Don’t say you didn’t know what you were getting into: the dark!!

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

French Crime Fiction from Fred Vargas, Good Reading!

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

The poison of the crimes, like the spider venom involved, threatens to incapacitate and to kill.

In her ninth translated Commissaire Adamsberg crime novel, CWA award winner Fred Vargas takes a strand from the #metoo movement and weaves it into scandals around unprotected children and religious failings, to craft an intense and deep-cutting investigation in This Poison Will Remain.

The book’s title in French was Quand sort la recluse: loosely translated, “when the recluse goes forth.” It’s a better title than This Poison Will Remain, since the heart of the crimes that Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his officers investigate involves the double meaning of “recluse.” First, there’s the brown recluse spider, which can give a toxic but not generally deadly bite. So why are victims dying of what appears to be the spider’s venom … multiplied to an amount that at least 22 spiders would have to provide?

Second, a recluse, as Americans know, is also a hermit, a person who deliberately lives separately from society and even friendship. In France, it’s extended to some kinds of religious hermits, as well as a vicious past history of abused women enclosed in terribly deprived huts, reduced to the status of charity-fed animals, in order to hide their shame at having been sexually abused.

Adamsberg finds support in the investigation from a spider-interested older woman who in turn is caregiver for someone who no longer functions outside the home. It seems a kindness. But as he and his team begin to untangle threads that lead back to a gang of childhood bullies at an orphanage in Nîmes, their suspicion of any player from that locality takes them deeper into how personalities can deform, not just with abuse but also with isolation.

Vargas is not as well known in America as some other French crime novelists. It’s a delight to read the smooth translation by the same person who’s worked with her previous crime fiction, Siàn Reynolds. Adamsberg has collected a talented but in some ways crippled set of detectives: a tense commandant ready to challenge the Commissaire’s authority, a narcoleptic research pro, a calm but not yet self-confident female lieutenant. In This Poison Will Remain it’s the concerns of Commandant Danglard, some for himself, some for the group, that nearly capsize the investigation and the team:

“When Adamsberg had come into the room, with his usual slightly rolling gait, smiling round at everyone, shaking hands, Danglard’s anxiety immediately revived. More vague and elusive than ever, with his wandering gaze and absent-minded smile, the commissaire seemed to have lost touch with the precisely carpentered joists which had always … underpinned his approach … He’s looking invertebrate, boneless, Danglard deduced.”

This meeting lays the groundwork for Danglard to become a danger to his own boss, and a traitor to the group. The poison of the crimes, like the spider venom involved, threatens to incapacitate and to kill.

What Danglard fails to keep in mind, though, is Adamsberg’s attentive intuition, as well as his grasp of the heart’s own reasoning. Solving the crime successfully will also demand winning back his team’s loyalty and building their strength. Vargas paints a stirring portrait of how a true leader does exactly that—while making sure the job gets done.

No surprise that Vargas’s books (“Fred Vargas” is a pen name; it’s Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, a historian and archaeologist as well) have sold more than 10 million copies. It will be good to see more Americans enjoy the series.

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

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Guest Reviews by MADonnelly: MYSTERIES by Isabella Maldonado, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Becky Clark. A. J. Mackenzie, Kirsten Weiss, Antti Tuomainen

MADonnelly is a published poet, a Vermonter, a good friend. As guest reviewer on this blog, she brings a hint of Irish delight to the space. And you know what the Irish say: May your home always be too small to hold all your friends. The same applies to a good review blog. Thanks for these pithy takes on six mysteries, Friend!

DEATH BLOW by Isabella Maldonado (A Veranda Cruz mystery, Midnight Ink)

If you like tough cop heroines and  chilling, gruesome hit jobs, this one’s for you.  Add a savagely cruel Mexican drug smuggling cartel, a violent family history, and fast paced, tense police work and you’re in for a wild ride.  The author, with over 20 years in law enforcement, joins intimate knowledge of criminality and  police procedures with considerable writing skills and  a gift for  creating some psychologically complex characters.   Occasionally some tender heartedness, devotion  or cop loyalty shine through rough exteriors to relieve the horrors and appear at the right time.

TRAP by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, trans. Quentin Bates (Orenda Books)

As if trying to get custody of her son away from an abusive and criminal husband weren’t enough, Sonja herself is part of an international drug smuggling operation and in an on-again off-again lesbian relationship with a money laundering cocaine addict.  As she realizes the connections between the  banking and  drug plots, she finds herself being drawn in deeper and deeper. The more she desperately wants to get out and live a normal life with her son, the more she finds herself with a target on her back and unable to extricate herself from the increasing corruption, danger and threats. (Note the translator, who's an Icelandic noir author himself.)

FOUL PLAY ON WORDS by Becky Clark (Midnight Ink)
Witty, self deprecating  and somewhat neurotic mystery writer Charlemagne Russo arrives in Portland  for a mystery writer’s conference thinking all she has to do is give a keynote speech, catch up with her best friend and fly home to her boyfriend.  Instead  she immediately discovers that she is in charge of the conference with no help, her friend’s daughter has been kidnapped and the conference hotel has  been double booked with a dog show. Her friend has told her to focus on the conference  but Charlee can’t let the kidnapping go.  She must find the daughter. Motive? Financial insolvency? drug addiction? family secrets? illicit romance?  Everything’s possible  with lots of barking dogs,  rendezvous in dark passageways under the hotel, suspicious looks and cryptic remarks by staff and attendees.  The  ransom, possible multiple murders and conference deadlines  are all looming.  A  frantic, comic tale.

THE BODY IN THE BOAT by A. J. Mackenzie (Hardcastle & Chaytor Mystery, Zaffre)

There are a number and variety of strong female characters in this mystery. Particularly astute and principled is Mrs. Chaytor, who with her close friend Reverend Hardcastle  have  not only multiple murders to solve  but  troubled parishioners and refugees to tend to.  They do so with fierce intelligence and relentlessness, while struggling with their own personal sorrows and demons..     
    Romney Marsh in Georgian England during a war with the French,  is the rough, gloomy setting for this story and   its smuggling and banking worlds — and the sinister ways they are connected. Mrs. Chaytor and the Reverend, with the help of a couple of the smugglers (there are both”good” and “ very bad” smugglers) keep going over  every angle and all take pretty daring risks to uncover the chain of complicated events, the slippery perpetrators, the mysterious contrabands.

CHOCOLATE À LA MURDER by Kirsten Weiss (Midnight Ink)

  A Ghost Detecting resident cat  (named G.D.) and  a haunted Mexican molilnolo ( a stick for stirring chocolate) are just what you might expect in a “Perfectly Proper Paranormal Museum”.  But a  dead chocolatier, found covered in chocolate,  is probably not your  typical murder victim.  Museum owner Maddie Kosloski, a self appointed amateur detective wants desperately to solve the crime. She goes about it steadfastly and with wacky humor, much to the annoyance of friends, family, and the local police. There’s not as much assistance or interference from the paranormal as the name of the museum suggests, but Maddie does well without it.
  And maybe the chocolate shop, billing itself as  producing the most high end best chocolate ever, (“ hand crafted, ethically sourced, organically grown ingredients”) is not all it’s cracked up to be.

PALM BEACH FINLAND by Antti Tuomainen (Orenda Books)

Here’s a mystery that starts with a murder and the reader knows right away who did it, how and why. The real entertainment , sustained, deepened and embellished beautifully and sometimes hysterically, is in how the assortment of characters figure it out, react, compromise, diabolically pursue, bungle, cover up. There are big themes too: Life’s dreams and plans, failure, greed, friendship, revenge, brutality, love - and the ridiculous.  The author focuses masterfully on the characters’ eccentricities and inner lives.  Psychological complexity, wild humor, romance-  it’s a rich mix in the new, garish, plastic-palm-trees-and -all   Palm Beach Finland resort, “the hottest beach in Finland.”

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

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Doubling Up on Edith Maxwell's Quaker Midwife Mysteries

Well-written historical mysteries offer the benefits of time travel, first class: With a trustworthy author who does plenty of research, diving into a "history mystery" reveals the nuances of a particular time and culture, through the eyes of a compelling character tackling risk, danger, and injustice.

That's one of the great pleasures of reading the Quaker Midwife Mystery series from Massachusetts author Edith Maxwell. Set in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in the 1880s, the books have probed class and gender, liberty for Black Americans and for women across the board, and the customs of the politically active worship units of the Quakers.

Maxwell's most recent book in this series was CHARITY'S BURDEN, released in April 2019. Protagonist Rose Carroll is a midwife who takes her religious customs with her to to family homes she visits -- addressing people by their first names, for instance, something that Quakers of her time did to indicate that all were of equal standing. As an activist on behalf of her clients, Rose confronts the inequities in their lives: poverty, abusive spouses, terribly long work hours.

In CHARITY'S BURDEN, Rose discovers, to her horror, that one of her clients may have experienced a botched abortion and died from the results. Rose certainly understands the need for family planning, and can sympathize with a woman's desire to end a pregnancy when conditions will make another birth dangerous or cruel. But she has no patience for people who knowingly injure women (pregnant or not).

So the hunt begins for who in Amesbury is quietly putting lives at risk. At the same time, while Rose collaborates with police detective Kevin Donovan (despite Donovan's new boss banning such teamwork), she longs for the chance to finally marry her own beloved David, a doctor who in fact may be of assistance in her search for justice:
It occurred to me that David might know of doctors who provided abortion services, as illegal as they were. "And I might need a bit of help from thee."

"Whatever I can do."

"We had a happy announcement here last night. Faith and Zeb are also to be wed, and it will be this First Day."

"My, so soon. You're correct, that's very happy news." He fell silent for a moment. "Did this make you wistful for our own vows, darling?"

"I confess it did."
However, since David's mother is adamantly opposed to her son marrying Rose -- her career, her values, even her clothing are not what's expected for such a marriage -- Rose's efforts to take care of her clients and stop the illegal procedures costing them health and even life may cost her dearly.

Series readers get an extra treat with the Quaker Midwife series this year: Mystery publisher Midnight Ink, which brought CHARITY'S BURDEN and the three earlier books of this series to print, has closed its doors. So the next in the Quaker Midwife series, JUDGE THEE NOT (involving a false accusation, class bias, a pregnant woman who's blind, and more) is coming out from Beyond the Page Publishing ... not next year, but next week!

So order both books through your local store or online retailer, and enjoy the double treat. Not much "on-stage violence" in these books, but wonderful information (instilled the way Barbara Cleverly brings us England between the wars, or Sujata Massey offers India of the 1920s) and a capable and loving sleuth -- well worth adding to the TBR stack and then the "read it again soon" shelves.

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

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Crimesolving in the Trenches: WHEN HELL STRUCK TWELVE, James R. Benn

What do you value in a good mystery book? Pace? Character? Clues? A certain level of darkness but some restraint on gory moments?

I want all of those -- and a recognition that someone's got to take action against that darkness -- but I also want to respect the sleuth, feel challenged by watching for clues with the protagonist, and earn my satisfaction with the book's resolution. I may not "solve the crime" before the book's main character does (and I surely don't want to solve it in chapter 1 and then wait impatiently for him or her to catch up!), but I want to feel like I was somehow on the right track. I could have done it, if I'd had the good friend, or the moment of stress, or that head-knocking sudden new view of the people and their actions that have crowded around me in the book, right?

That sense of working toward satisfaction, coupled with the value of friendship and some good moral choices: Those are the components that make me a fan of the Billy Boyle mysteries. Or, as the covers now say, "A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery."

James R. Benn works with a well-defined stage of action and timeline. After all, World War II ended some 74 years ago, and we "know the ending." We won. So to speak.

But the details of the war years include many surprising twists and tales, and Benn's two most constant characters in this series, Lieutenant Billy Boyle (of the Boston cop Boyles) and his Polish military intelligence buddy, "Kaz," have already trudged through Spanish battlegrounds, across North African terrain, and among Roma Gypsies, while working for SHAEF, a special operations wing under General Eisenhower's personal direction.

Now in the 14th book of the series, WHEN HELL STRUCK TWELVE, Billy and Kaz undertake operations in northern France in August 1944. Back on the Allied line of action, they're caught at the opening of the book with a group of Free Poles stranded on a hill under vicious bombardment. "Every Polish soldier knew what surrender to the SS meant. Execution... There was only one choice—to fight to the death." For the Poles are all aware of the valiant Warsaw Uprising, crushed and massacred by Nazi SS troops. In Billy's grasp of the Polish situation, readers too bond with the valiant effort and with the exhilaration as the tide of battle turns: "In the midst of all the yelling, I heard a familiar voice, and saw Kaz join us. He chanted Warszawa with the rest of them, tears streaming through the dirt and dust on his cheeks."

So this isn't a "war book" -- it's an emotionally charged journey of friends under fire. And to this, Billy and Kaz's boss, Colonel Harding, adds a crime-solving mission: The team must find and isolate a traitor among the leaders of the French resistance groups, before General Patton moves into his final fierce maneuvers to retake Paris from the Nazi forces. Some of those resistance leaders aren't exactly nice people, even when gathered at an all-allies confab for final plans:
One of the bodyguards delivered a cup of coffee to Jarnac, who gave a slight nod, indicating they could relax and take their turn at the sugar bowl.

"It seems you may still be in danger," Kaz said, watching as the two hulks waited at the coffee urn.

"Simply a precaution," Jarnac said. "Old habits are hard to break. Look, even Louvet comes with his guard of honor!" ... Louvet had his own beefy men behind him, eyeing the crowded room with suspicion. No one had entered with rifles or machine guns, but there were enough revolvers and automatics in holsters, waistbands, and pockets to kick off our own gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
By the time the coffee-and-conference is over, murder's been committed, and since a coverup of the suspected traitor seems the likely motive, Billy and Kaz launch a risky and clock-racing investigation.

Fans of the series can expect other stars from earlier volumes to appear as the team gets closer to re-taking the City of Lights. Benn also hurls startling twists into the book's finale, promising an intense next book in the series.

If you're curious about the book title, here's the epigraph at the front: "O childhood, the grass, the rain, the lake water on stones, / oh moonlight when the hell struck twelve. ... / The devil's in the tower right now." From Hellish Night, by Arthur Rimbaud.

That's right. Every fiercely good mystery takes part in the battle of good and evil. Part of the suspense is in wondering how the good guys (whether at the O.K. Corral or in 1944 France) will muddle through, when (by choice) they're not using the nastiest weapons in the fight. And the other part -- which James Benn evokes so well -- is wondering ... at what cost??

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

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Anne Perry Addict? Good Choice! Here's Her 2019 Title ... TRIPLE JEOPARDY

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Triple Jeopardy shows emphatically that Perry’s best writing exhumes the motives of the human heart.”

Last year Anne Perry introduced her third crime fiction series set in England, and Triple Jeopardy is its second title, set in 1910. The book features Daniel Pitt, the son of investigators Charlotte and Thomas Pitt from one of her earlier series. Acting as what Americans would call a defense attorney, Daniel’s caught up in an international scandal that involves his sister Jemima and her husband Patrick.

One of Jemima’s friends from her years in America suffered an attempted sexual assault there, and the theft of a personally important necklace. The blame falls on British diplomat Philip Sidney and migrates with all of the group to England. Daniel’s original plan, to yield to his sister’s wishes and defend Sidney only far enough to force revelation of the assault, goes out the window when one of the witnesses is murdered and an underlayer of profit and loss begins to be revealed.

Soon Daniel is compelled to seek direction from his direct superior, the estimable Mr. Kitteridge:

“‘The murder must be part of the whole business, but if Thorwood framed Sidney, and he’s innocent of the assault and the embezzlement, how does the murder of Morley Cross fit in with that?’

‘God, you’ve got a devious mind, and you want to understand everyone!’ Kitteridge said, but it was awe he expressed, not denial. ‘I see why you’re going all shades of pale,’ he went on. ‘What is Patrick Flannery’s part in this? … Could Morley Cross have attacked Rebecca?’ Kitteridge said with disbelief. ‘Then he set up Sidney with the embezzlement change?’

‘I hadn’t even thought of that,’ Daniel admitted, a wave of nausea coming over him.”

Perry’s adroit handling of matters of law and crime creates an intriguing skein of tangled motives and court case potential in this fast-paced and likeable novel. In addition, she spikes the action with a slowly growing attraction and daring whiff of romance between Pitt and his other boss’s brilliant daughter, forensic expert Miriam fforde Croft. When Pitt and fforde Croft follow a hint of evidence out to the Channel Islands, the entire set of available motives shifts in a heartbeat. All Daniel Pitt will have to do is maneuver the progress of the legal case to force the unlikely admission of the crimes involved.

“The judge looked exasperated. ‘Mr. Pitt, my patience is not endless, and you have tried it further than most. I hope you know what you are doing?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Daniel replied. He hoped more than anyone else that, indeed, he did. They all seemed to be here. His parents, Patrick and Jemima, Miriam, all those he cared about. This was going to be a triumph … or a disaster. He could feel his heart beating, as if it were trying to break out of his chest.”

Anne Perry’s long career has labeled her as an “English author of historical detective fiction.” But Triple Jeopardy shows emphatically that her best writing exhumes the motives of the human heart. This is, in the long run, the finest characteristic of well-written fiction, and sets readers looking for more from this promising new series.

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