Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Crime Novel from Calabria, Italy, BLACK SOULS, New from Soho Crime

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Across the decades of the narrator’s life, Black Souls becomes as mysterious as a set of cave paintings or yesterday’s “tags” on a building.

Nordic noir, French crime fiction, Japanese, South African—none of those are as surprising as the new crime novel from Calabria, Italy, Black Souls by Gioacchino Criaco. Deep and slow, it ranges over the youth, coming of age, and violent criminality of a nearly nameless narrator. His love for the landscape and the men in his family is a warm and restless ocean in which the crimes of the book roll, surge, and multiply. From early kidnappings and killings that balance the powers around the farming family, they ease toward urban connections and at last the cream of the crime crop, the drug trade.

But in Criaco’s hands, this becomes a literary exploration of a timeless land where fathers and sons form the ultimate bonds of the community. Calabria is one of the “oldest” occupied parts of Italy (today the label is for the “toe” of the nation’s “boot” shape), with some 700,000 years of human presence. Once redolent with many languages and histories, it has become both more Italian and more intensely occupied by the ‘Ndrangheta, a family-based crime network now darker and larger than the Mafia.

Criaco binds this criminal nature to the natural landscape and the eons of myths that permeate the consciousness of the peoples there. When the novel’s narrator slaughters a wild bull, he spends a harrowing night in and out of sleep:
I thought I could hear a mournful bellowing. I saw the bull’s head staring at me with that terrible, artificial eye in the middle of his forehead. … An immense pain overtook me, I was aware that I was trapped in a nightmare, I tried to wake up and couldn’t, I got up and fell back down, and only when the pain had traveled to my core could I shake myself awake.

I found myself sitting up in the dark. Bino tenderly pressed a cup of hot coffee into my hands. "Did you hear them? … We are a part of the mountains, not their masters. Sometimes practicing evil is necessary to survive. Taking a life is always wrong But if you don’t give your conscience an alibi or a decoy, it will scream at you every night. Come, we have to appease them."
This mythic connection to centuries of choregraphed murder and revenge echoes through the book. “Black souls” are not cleansed, but held in balance, and evil is negotiated. Some innocence is allowed to remain, protected, and begins to represent the reason to struggle to reach that balance in each new round of crime and punishment.

Across the decades of the narrator’s life, Black Souls becomes as mysterious as a set of cave paintings or yesterday’s “tags” on a building: The connections among people matter here more than anything else, even more than avoiding evil itself.

There are few comparable crime novels today. Stuart Neville’s haunted fiction set in the Troubles of Ireland may come close; so, however, does Dostoevsky with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Make room for this book in the form of the “precious gift” that this criminal’s success is finally able to give to his father: “That money, even if it came late, too late for me, restored my father’s dignity.” 

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

Deep and Probing Novel from Charles Fergus, A STRANGER HERE BELOW

What makes an author choose to write a particular book? It's a topic that can lead to strange new worlds. For Charles Fergus, a Vermont author best known for his natural history, the death of his own mother many years before took him into writing A STRANGER HERE BELOW. Set in Pennsylvania not long after the nation's birth, it fingers both a historical culture and a lingering effect from his own life. I liked it.

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

A slow, rich novel of a distant time and a man who is “Othered” in most aspects of his life.

In A Stranger Here Below, Gideon Stoltz, a Pennsyvania Dutchman (that is, from German settler stock), has become sheriff almost by accident in the growing town of Adamant, in 1835. Though the town is already making its mark economically with an iron foundry, and a range of wealth from ironmaster to thief, it’s only a hard day’s ride from frontier landscape and life. And some days, maybe not that far.

Through Gideon’s naive eyes, the layout of the town’s power structure begins to emerge. It’s based on force and violence as well as profit. And it has little of benefit for the women and children, whose voices mingle with old ways, as well as with the New World’s fresh forms of Christian worship. Gideon’s own marriage is a cross-cultural one, into a family of scoundrels and at least one sorcerous sort of grandmother. But it’s a heart’s truth marriage, and he clings to it as a series of deaths in the town slowly peel back the truth of two earlier deaths: murder for gain.

Underneath this, for Gideon, is the formative event of his young life: seeing his mother dead after an assault that’s never avenged. It haunts him even as he investigates crime for his town, and when he retreats to his much-loved wife to try to regain his footing, he stumbles into what he most fears: “I am thinking about how we are punished for loving,” he admits to her.
‘We fall in love, with life, with other people, with our kin. We love the land, and galloping on a horse, or singing hymns, or watching the clouds pile up in the sky, we love our dear wives and children …We love these things so much,’ he said, ‘that we can’t bear to think of being parted from them. When we see others torn away from life, by disease, or confusion of the mind, or the cruel actions of others …’ He stopped, could not go on.
His wife, named True, assures him that this pain requires belief in God’s plan and promises. She enquires about what’s upsetting him: the death of his friend the judge, who committed suicide, or a murdered boy he’s seen?
‘Both.’ And his memmi. Always his memmi. He saw for the thousandth time her ravaged body lying in its own blood.
Fergus’s first mystery follows more than a dozen books, including many explorations of the natural world. In this rural sheriff’s embrace of the world around him are the goodness and love that won’t allow a wrongful death to be covered up—and that in turn will disturb what peace he’s gained, at the deepest levels.

A slow, rich novel of a distant time and a man who is “Othered” in most aspects of his life, A Stranger Here Below is also an exploration of how a kind person can be drawn toward the dark revelations that crimesolving demands. For some, the book may be a bit too tender in places, yet this patina of affection can readily be crushed and scarred—as the sheriff’s investigation reveals.

Although the book is clearly crime fiction, it is equally an exploration of the soul in the presence of death and wrongdoing. Which is, after all, what a “stranger here below” can expect. 

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

Sunday, February 24, 2019

New Series from Helene Tursten Opens, with HUNTING GAME

Helene Tursten's Irene Huss series, featuring a Swedish detective inspector, added a delightful holiday item with the short-story collection An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good. Now Soho Press is releasing the first book of a new thriller series from Tursten, and again the investigator is an official crimefighter.

Embla Nyström, age 28, is a Detective Inspector in the mobile unit for Gothenburg, Sweden. A fitness fanatic and long-time hunter, she's due for vacation -- and plans to spend it hunting moose with family and friends, a long-time autumn tradition.

The real "beasts" in the book turn out to be human, of course. Embla's slow realization that the hunt has turned murderous involves a poisonous snake planted in the outhouse (live), a vicious leghold trap at the foot of her tree stand, and finally hunters who start dying and disappearing.

Running parallel to the suspense is a powerful attraction Embla feels for a new member of the hunting party, Peter Hansson:
Embla observed him in secret. She knew that he was thirty-eight years old, but he looked younger. Given his athletic build, it was clear that he worked out. And he was tall and good-looking with blue eyes and rather long, thick blond hair. The thin linen shirt he wore was just casual enough. The collar was unbuttoned and she could see a little gold cross at his throat. When he introduced himself a row of white teeth was exposed in a pleasant smile. Bleached? she thought automatically. She also noted the appreciative look she got from him.
But this attraction and the hot passions resulting are a dangerous distraction.

Tursten's skilled writing carries the action, which is rapid and increasingly threatening. Her grasp of hunting helps; she's also adept with police procedure, and the interactions in Embla's team become an excellent subplot.

Tursten has always written her female leads with family conflicts and with emotional turmoil that makes perfect sense in the context. This holds up well, although Embla's personality and reactions are a bit softer than found in a true noir. Call this one an intense police procedural, then, with fine pacing and significant losses. And yes, there's an echo of other human-hunting tales ... but considering the context, it works very well to heighten the thrill.

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Ex-Detective Writes Terrific Crime Fiction, in THE MURDER BOOK by Lissa Marie Redmond

"A gritty dark edge that sparkles with a hint of possible redemption."
The cover's simple, even basic, but Lissa Marie Redmond's second Cold Case Investigation is traveling with blurbs from Reed Farrel Coleman and SJ Rozan. Make room on the shelf next to Karen Slaughter and Julia Spencer-Fleming and Julia Keller, too; this is a great new voice in crime fiction. I was hooked within the first chapter of THE MURDER BOOK.

Detective Lauren Riley, working late in the deserted police station on a cold case, sees just enough of the boots stamping her after someone's stabbed her: She knows the person who just attacked and left her for dead must work for the city of Buffalo, NY, probably as a detective or police officer. And it's got to be a man, from the force of the attack.

From here, she's mostly isolated in tracking down the would-be killer, because after all, who can she trust? But like Jeffrey Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme, she's got an unusual home situation -- and maybe two people on the force that can't have been the attacker. One is her partner Shane Reese, rock-solid reliable except when he's out "dating." An added problem: As a long-time cop, Lauren has old enemies who could come out of the woodwork. In fact, while she's laid up in the hospital from the stabbing, one of them does just that:
Lauren dropped the card on the floor and looked around. "When did these [flowers] get here?" Lauren demanded. Shooting her good arm out, she slapped her palm to the wall to steady herself. ...

Both Anna and Juan came around the nurses' station at the sudden change in her demeanor. "What? What's wrong?" Anna asked as Juan grabbed her on her good side and held her up, easing her to the station desk.

"Did you see who left these?" Lauren had Anna by the front of her scrubs with one hand.

"It was a kid," Anna told her, gently trying to break her grip. "I thought he might be one of your daughters' boyfriends ... He wanted to see you, but he wasn't on the list."
The card said "Get better soon" and was signed "David Spencer XOXO." And that's terrifying, because Lauren knows -- but hasn't much she can do about it -- that Spencer is a remorseless double murdered who's realized she knows he's guilty. And won't stand trial.

That means there are two forces threatening Lauren's safety: whoever wanted and took the "Murder Book" of notes on the cold cases, leaving her for dead; and Spencer, the frighteningly capable force of her own past.

When Lauren and her partner recruit a retired detective who used to take action against organized crime, they step across a couple of notable lines: They're outside approved channels; they'd tackling serious mob presence; and like it or not, they're waking Lauren's inner demons, the residue of the violence she's not only seen but experienced.

A pulse-racing pace, well-chosen details of Buffalo's mixed industrial landscape, and characters to bleed for make this a stunningly good second book. (Guess who's put the precursor, A Cold Day, onto her TBR list?) Moreover, Redmond's career with the city of Buffalo as both a police officer and detective provides extra assurance of underlying reality, along with a gritty dark edge that sparkles with a hint of possible redemption.

Highly recommended, and new this month from Midnight Ink.

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

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Anti-Sherlock Holmes, William Arrowood, Returns in THE MURDER PIT

Glasgow-born Mick Finlay has taken rough conditions to the extreme, including the condition of his detective, in his second Arrowood mystery, THE MURDER PIT. And it's a doozy. With twists, risks, extreme danger, and graphic descriptions of filth and poverty, it's an outrageous counter to the civilied Sherlock Holmes narratives supposedly being printed at the same time that Arrowood and his loyal sidekick Norman Barnett are scrambling to make a living. And there's a fierce rivalry between Arrowood, the "workingman's detective," and the pricey and elegant Holmes: one that's more than just the part of the city where they live, the amount they get paid, the gap between praise and vilification in the London newspapers.

For Arrowood, a man of enormous heart (and girth), opens the interior of crime by observing the personality and emotions of the person he's facing. He puzzles over Darwin, sort out early psychology, grieves for the lot of the people in the slums around him in an emotional stew quite foreign to the celebrated cerebral sleuth of Baker Street. As he warms up to a case involving a woman who can't seem to speak for herself -- she's severely learning disabled and has been married off in a suspicious financial transaction, to a disgusting farm far from home -- Arrowood depends on Barnett's initial survey of the possibly forced bride:
"So Birdie looked in low spirits in train?" he asked, shoving the last piece of warm muffin in his gob.

"That's what it looked like to me. And I felt she wanted to show me too. But I couldn't swear by it. It was dark, and she only looked up quick."

"We ca all recognize grief," he said. "Mr. Darwin says it's universal: raised inner eyebrows, furrowed forehead, lowered mouth corners. The Hindoos, the Malays, the ancient Greeks—all the same. If we couldn't recognize sadness in others we couldn't sympathize. And what would society be like without sympathy, Barnett?"

"Like London sometimes, sir."
Brace for filth, and description of disgusting conditions, from the reek of Arrowood himself, to the pig manure and malicious violence that follow when the pair dig into what's going on in a very unscrupulous medical practice. It's often ugly in Arrowood's London.

But it's also a city of passion and surprising tenderness, and Barnett himself will finally reveal the sorry state of his life to his employer, whose caring is direct and honest. (Just don't get close enough to let Arrowood enfold you in an embrace, an action that again the posh Sherlock Holmes would not condone.)

The devil may be in the details. Walking with this unusual detection team may turn your stomach every few pages. Yet the plot twists are agile, the discoveries worth the work, and yes, I'd read another in this series. I liked the first one, too (Arrowood.) Brought from the UK by the Mira imprint of HarperCollins.

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

Monday, February 04, 2019

Irresistible New Flavia de Luce from Alan Bradley, The Golden Tresses of the Dead

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

“It’s a foregone conclusion that adults picking up The Golden Tresses of the Dead are sneakily opening up the book on their own, under the covers at night.”
Flavia de Luce is insatiably curious about science, especially chemistry, and in her exquisitely uncomfortable British home where half her family’s dead and the other half make fun of her, no wonder she turns to detection instead. In this tenth in Allan Bradley’s irresistible series, Flavia faces a new loss: Her sister Feely (for Ophelia), who maybe sometimes likes her, gets married in a gorgeous ceremony and is about to depart on a honeymoon trip.  Just as Flavia begins to realize what a loss this will be, distraction erupts with Feely’s horrified discovery of a severed human finger in the wedding cake.

It’s the best possible distraction for Flavia, though. Once Feely leaves, Flavia digs into investigating the finger’s origin—and of course the purpose of being in the wedding cake—with the one person she can trust in her home: Dogger, long ago rescued in wartime by Flavia’s father, and now Flavia’s own partner in discrete investigations. Picture it: Arthur W. Dogger & Associates. Maybe being an “associate” will keep Flavia from getting into more trouble with the local constabulary.

In many other books featuring adolescent protagonists, dead bodies would be something to avoid. The Golden Tresses of the Dead (the line is from a Shakespeare sonnet) refers, of course, to those stinky, decomposing corpses. For Flavia, they are a source of fascination, with their parts and their processes. (She does have some dreadful moments when she sees them as human, but not often.) With Dogger, she now has reason to visit cemeteries, probe the processes of embalming and bleeding out, and test for various poisons.

Bradley can’t keep Flavia endlessly young, which is starting to strain the series a bit. Flavia suspects her newly emotional self as having “glandular” issues; grapples with odd feelings about the bodies and smiles of young men; and can’t get away with excusing her adventures as “childish.”

On the other hand, her growing knowledge of chemical reactions opens fresh insight for her in solving crimes:
Someone had put the ordeal beans of Calabar into Mrs. Prill’s coffee maker.
I couldn’t wait to tell Dogger.

It was too late tonight. He needed his rest. And so, to think of it, did I.

I switched off the lights and went back to my bedroom. I sat on the edge of my bed reviewing the events of a hectic day.

But even before I reached the London Necropolis Railway, sleep fell on my head like a sackful of anvils, and I did not move until morning.
What wakes Flavia from this impressive torpor is the loud and slightly malicious teasing of her unwanted younger cousin, Undine. Although Flavia dislikes the loud-mouthed “little swine,” Undine’s insistence on being heard awakens another “glandular” emotion in Flavia: compassion for this child who’s competing for Flavia’s position in the family, and in the investigation.

When Bradley sees Flavia through to the closing of two cases at once, he leaves a door open to the next book in the series—which, almost surely, will aim Undine and Flavia on a collision course with the next murder.

Purchase the book ostensibly for the “young person” in your life, if you like; it’s a foregone conclusion that adults picking up The Golden Tresses of the Dead are sneakily opening up the book on their own, under the covers at night.

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

Mossad Espionage and Counterterrorism from Jonathan de Shalit

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

“It’s stylish to portray Mossad as the least likeable and most dangerous of all the secret mission forces in the Western world.”
Ejected Mossad agent Ya'ara Stein is tapped by Israel’s prime minister to create a secret, un-acknowledgeable task force that can strike at will, without publicity, and without compunction. If it’s necessary to kill for Israel, this task force should be able to do exactly that.

Stein is brilliant and deadly, a combination that probably should go with some form of psychopathy. Or is that a normal result of training with Mossad and appreciating the horrors that antisemitism and global warfare commit against Israel daily? Because author Jonathan de Shalit (a pen name for a former Israeli intelligence agent) never clears that up, a terrible ambiguity lingers, and even deepens, around this highly connected woman. Her love affairs are riven by treachery than she’s willing and able to conceal. Her friendships shiver with regrets and past violent actions. She is, in fact, the title’s embodiment: A Spy in Exile.

But the truly likeable side of Ya’ara Stein is the tender care, planning, and acuity she invests in training her team of “cadets.” With her partner Aslan, as she lists the credentials their newbies should have, she asserts, “We’ll look for people who are missing a part of their soul.” Aslan, in protest, says, “And yet they must still be trustworthy, stable, cool-headed, and all that.” “Yes.”

Because of a sudden need from “above,” Ya-ara and Aslan opt to train their team in live action, taking down a Russian terrorist plot. There’s little hidden from the reader, who looks over the shoulder of the Russian planners, the terrorists in the field, and the possible bed-partner of Ya’ara’s who is accidentally tangled in the mess. de Shalit’s adroit plotting and description of weapons and their effects makes the action scenes lively and compelling, with highly believable terrorist aims.
Ya’ara hadn’t believed to begin with that the sloppy occupants of the farm could be running the show all on their own.

“’Do you know what these are?’ Ya’ara asked Aslan.

‘Of course. Field dossiers.’

… an operation—information on their residences, their vehicles, the roads in and out of the respective areas, the security measures in place in the vicinities. All at once, the pieces of the puzzle slipped into place. Ya’ara looked at Aslan. The blood had drained from her face. She felt as if she was seeing ghosts. History never remains in the past, and here it was, coming back to haunt again.
Yet Ya’ara is labeling more than her team when she talks about “missing a part of their soul.” Her clarity of mission allows her to take finely honed extreme risks for herself, and to betray as needed, in order to complete the task. It’s not a comfortable situation to observe. de Shalit’s first book, Traitor, won acclaim and in particular was praised for the author having learned from John Le Carré. If that is indeed the case, then the author has learned to portray a female and still employable version of Le Carré’s less than lovable traitors. Oh, Ya’ara won’t betray Israel, that’s clear – but don’t expect her to regret any other option for more than a day or so. She’s not made for high principles other than doing her job.

It’s stylish to portray Mossad as the least likeable and most dangerous of all the secret mission forces in the Western world. A question that lingers long after reading this fast-paced modern espionage novel is, Where’s the moral gap? In the agency–or the author–or just the character in place? Or, more likely, in exile.

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

Charles Todd, THE BLACK ASCOT, British Post World War I, Richly Detailed and Memorable

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

“It’s the taint of a shell-shock diagnosis, something considered so offensive and humiliating in postwar society that it can terminate Rutledge’s career almost as quickly as a bullet to the head.”
Charles Todd’s Inspector Ian Rutledge series opens its 21st title with a tip of the hat to a 1910 event well known in England, but perhaps not to American readers: the “Black Ascot,” when the traditional glittering social occasion of the royally established horse race faced a catastrophe of timing. King Edward VII died, and the royal house was in deep mourning, with the nation hardly less so. In a brilliant adaptation, the “glitterati” attended in mourning dress: clad entirely in black.

In a death related to the race are the seeds of the tragedy and linked crimes than Inspector Ian Rutledge finds himself investigating eleven years later, in his postwar resumed post with Scotland Yard. Not that the case is obvious to start with—in fact, Rutledge simply responds to a village crisis, an overwrought man on a church roof, holding a girl hostage with a shotgun.

Fans of the series will give a quiet “hoorah” for the immediate presence of Rutledge’s haunting inner voice, that of his wartime colleague Hamish, warning Ian of the perils in the rescue he attempts. There’s an unexpected gift to Rutledge when he resolves things: word of an observation of a “most wanted” murderer from that 1910 event, Alan Barrington.

The information offered at the start of The Black Ascot positions Rutledge on dubious ground (as usual) with his superior:
Rutledge made good time back to London. And for most of the drive, he mulled over Danny’s sighting of Alan Barrington, and whether or not to mention it to Chief Superintendent Jameson. … If the sighting proved true, and the Yard wasn’t informed then he would be derelict in his duty.

Hamish, stirring in the back of his mind, said, ‘He’ll be more fashed if you send him chasing after wild geese.’
Of course, since the Chief Superintendent heartily despises Rutledge, the hunt for a near-vanished deadly criminal is also a possible way to humiliate the inspector with that wild goose chase, and possibly even to fire him. So the hunt is on.

Charles Todd is a master plot tangler, and in the hands of this mother-son author team, Rutledge must comb apart society’s powerful connections, apparent love matches that turn abusive, and more. Because he’s hunting Alan Barrington, he’s pitting his wits and emotional understanding against some passionate defenders of the accused—people who will do almost anything to prevent Barrington’s capture and trial. He’ll also pry into a family’s desperate efforts to protect an outcast and a hidden set of long-ago crimes.

The enduring appeal of this series is its subtle and poignant probing of the damage done by the Great War: to Ian Rutledge, to England’s upper classes and villages alike, and to a nation’s concept of itself as gracious and lovely. At front and center this time is not the struggle between Ian and the part of himself that speaks with Hamish’s voice. Instead, it’s the taint of a shell-shock diagnosis, something considered so offensive and humiliating in postwar society that it can terminate Rutledge’s career almost as quickly as a bullet to the head.

So solving the Barrington case, and capturing the killer, becomes Rutledge’s only hope for his self-respect and his job. As the pages fly past, Charles Todd takes this investigator into tangled boundaries and razor-sharp fences. The best kind of suspense is generated: believing that somehow the inspector will come through, but not knowing, from one moment to the next, how on earth he and his fragile network of support will find a way out of the war-torn darkness.

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

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Sinister Plots Found in Colonial and Revolutionary America -- for Real

Author Brad Meltzer, whose recent books include both thrillers for adults and amazing American biographies for early readers, just completed his tour for THE FIRST CONSPIRACY. History fans won't be surprised that it probes a real attempt to dislodge George Washington himself. We'll post a full review later, but wanted to mention the book today as part of a list-in-the-making of American adventures based in what really happened. This one's nonfiction -- but as noted historian (and eqeually gifted storyteller) James M. McPherson comments, “This story of skullduggery, bribery, espionage, and treason sheds new light on the beginnings of the American Revolution.”

Another is SAVAGE LIBERTY (A Mystery of Revolutionary America) from Eliot Pattison. This page-turner opens with conflict and conniving in Boston, involving Sam Adams, John Hancock, and other familiar figures. Check the full review here. Others in this series from Pattison give new views of Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American inventor, entrepreneur, explorer, and politician.

Last on the list today, a book that frustrated me in some ways as a mystery, but that also tackled the George Washington plot: Charles Rosenberg's THE TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF THE TRAITOR GEORGE WASHINGTON.

Clear a good space on the shelf -- we'll add more to the list in a bit.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Six Sherlock Holmes Stories from Tim Symonds, A MOST DIABOLICAL PLOT

There may be nothing quite as challenging in the crime fiction world as crafting a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. You need the tone exactly right, the historic details, the color of the time -- and most importantly, a twist of a crime puzzle that Holmes will find of interest and Watson will feel compelled to record.

Tim Symonds, an Englishman who's also traveled widely, is no amateur at this task. A MOST DIABOLICAL PLOT is his sixth effort in the field, if I've counted correctly (see his website here). His route into the challenge is to enhance the character of Dr John Watson, opening some of the doors that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left closed. Thus, he creates a new vantage point, one that's effective in distracting the viewer from any small slips of tone or language.

This latest six-story collection is a highly enjoyable gem; my favorite of the six is "The Captain in the Duke of Wellington's Regiment," which leans on Watson's history in the British imperial forces. Consider this useful maneuver, which the good doctor can execute on his own:
I left the Park and hailed a brougham. "Cabbie," I shouted, "Apsley House, if you please, at the double!" A moment later I called out, "First, take me to 221, Baker Street." I would change into my old Medical officer's uniform brought back from Afghanistan, replete with indelible stains of blood from the fatal battle of Maiwand. On previous occasions my army uniform proved a useful entrée when brother officers were around.

There was no sign of Holmes. I dropped the Police Gazette on his chair, changed clothes, and returned to the waiting cabbie.
Although of course it is Holmes who adds the perceptions that unravel the final knot, it's a pleasure to see Watson so diligent in his efforts. A must-have collection for anyone who enjoys the strenuous effort of latter-day Holmes fiction -- and a delightfully relaxing read, as well.

Cordial thanks to the author for sending a copy of the book from "abroad," and a tip of the hat to Manchester, New Hampshire (USA), resident Brian Belanger for the cover design. The publisher is Holmes expert MX Publishing of London.

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

Summer Camp's Most Enduring Nightmare, in THE DROWNING by J. P. Smith

There was always an edge of noir about nights at summer camp, wasn't there? You were safe if you stayed in the cabin, but getting to the bathroom -- or being the last one to walk back from the lake -- what if the scary creature from last night's fireside chiller came after you?

In THE DROWING, J. P. Smith's seventh novel, that darkness goes around full circle, in a twist of persecution that steps back into the life of a former camp counselor. It's Alex Mason, whose determination to teach a little boy named Joey Proctor to swim got twisted, years ago, into something mean and frightening. The child disappeared, and Alex got on with his life afterward.

But others couldn't. The child's parents. The camp owners. The child, if he survived -- is that even possible? He must have drowned or been kidnapped, right?

Alex keeps trying to convince himself. But for sure, someone is coming after him and methodically destroying every aspect of his otherwise successful career and family. Even his wife can't buy that  he's not responsible for this devastation:
She touched his hand. "Tell me the truth. Did you do this? No, don't look at me like that. Did you or didn't you? If you did, you must have had a good reason for it. Just help me try to understand, okay?"

"You don't trust me anymore, do you," he said.

"After those photos from the bar? And you abandoning a little boy on a raft? Maybe I'm just a little less confident these days."
In a classic horror thriller (so much so that I kept looking for a quick cameo by Alfred Hitchcock), Alex loses control of everything he values. The twists are knife-sharp, the suspense excruciating. And the final twist -- well, whether you buy the last explanation or not (and I didn't quite), you will have taken a wicked rollercoaster ride. Make sure you keep your ticket.

From Sourcebooks, new for January.

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

Detroit Crime Fiction from Stephen Mack Jones, LIVES LAID AWAY

Uh-oh. I just had to add Stephen Mack Jones to my list of "must read everything by this crime fiction author." The list is getting out of hand. That said, at least Jones has only one earlier mystery, August Snow (an award nominee), to round up for my new shelf space, in which LIVES LAID AWAY is getting great exposure.

It's hard to believe this is only the second mystery from this author -- with a well tangled plot, excellent pacing, and the deft mixture of toughness and generosity in his protagonist, August Snow, this is a terrific new book and a great series.

August Snow is an ex-police officer living in a rundown section of Detroit, determinedly saving his old neighborhood, one structure and worthwhile neighbor at a time. That means that when crime crosses his path, he's obligated to do something about it, unless he wants to lose what he's built. And he's still got some connections to work the case.

Snow is as shocked as anyone else when the body of a young Hispanic immigrant turns up in the Detroit River, dressed in costume and clearly sexually abused. Snow's close friend Elena, who works with both legal and illegal immigrants to help them find their way to healthy American citizenship, can ID the young woman. And in that moment of recognition, she and August face a commitment to all the immigrants in the neighborhood whose persecution has become some criminal's new game. Of course, criminals aren't the only threat -- so is the law at times.
"ICE agents were inquiring about Catalina," I said. "And Manny,"

"Jesus," Carlos said. Attempting to hold onto a thread of hope, he said, "Señora Elena's been looking into citizenship paths for--"

"Right now, my friend," I said, "there are no paths. Only landmines."

"Is she -- are they safe? My boy? With Father Grabowski?" Carlos said I might as well have punched him in the gut. At least that would have left him with a bit of air in his lungs.
I knew Detroit a bit, before its collapse. I wouldn't have wished this on any city. That said, the economic and social disaster of the city is forcing top crime fiction just as surely as sunshine forces a plant out of the earth. Count Stephen Mack Jones way onto the plus side of the ledger.

A Soho Crime book, new in January.

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

Brief Mention: THE OLD YOU from Louise Voss

Orenda Books brought the new psychological thriller from Louise Voss across the Atlantic for the start of January, and it's a compulsive -- even propulsive (!) read. THE OLD YOU sets up a classic moment in the life of a couple, Lynn and Ed Naismith. Just as Louise starts a new teaching job, her husband's fumbling errors in words and ideas gets labeled with a diagnosis: a progressive dementia, untreatable and irreversible.

What makes this into a fascinating work of crime fiction and suspense is the change of character happening to Lynn's husband: violence at a level that forces her into a separate bedroom, and raises dark questions about his past. But it goes way past there -- Voss is a seasoned British thriller author, and she rapidly erects a maze of threat and risk around Lynn, where far more than her marriage is disintegrating.

If you're a Barbara Vine fan, grab this one. The situation's provocative, the secrets dark, and the suspense demanding and well paced.

The author's website is out of date; check out the Louise Voss Facebook page instead.

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

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Heard of the Bland Sisters Adventures? Book 3 Amazes! From Kara LaReau and Jen Hill

A happy accident sent a copy of the final book in the Bland Sisters trilogy to my desk this month. And what a delight! Written by Kara LaReau and abundantly illustrated by Jen Hill, the series is probably meant for 8-year-olds, plus or minus a year ... but it's a dandy entertainment for willing adults.

Jaundice and Kale Bland are twin sisters -- at least, they think they share a birthday -- who like everything flavorless, colorless, and boring. Thus, their explosive exit from Dullsville to wild and risky living is absolutely NOT what they wanted. Hence the supertitle of the trilogy: "The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters."

Book 1, The Jolly Regina, sees the sisters kidnapped by a team of "lady pirates." Swashbuckling and sea chanties, and of course the risk of seasickness and falling overboard, follow. Test-drive this notion with the kids in your circle: "Raise your hand if you'd like to be snatched onto a ship by pirates who are happy and laughing and have an important mission!"

Book 2, The Uncanny Express, follows the lead of Agatha Christie by stranding Jaundice and Kale with "ten strangers on a train" (including a magician). And the girls are somehow expected to rescue the situation -- what? Really? Cool.

Book 3 is Flight of the Bluebird and opens on a small airplane, being aptly piloted by the dashing Beatrix Airedale. (This is only the first of many intricate half-puns, some of which require a grown-up's literary experience or time spent watching old movies ... like when a feisty restaurant owner chases her staff member with the threat, "Don't play it again, Sam!") Says Beatrix to the girls, "You two should be glad you have parents who encourage you to explore the world. Mine stopped talking to me when I took up flying." "They don't talk to you, at all?" Kale asked. At least the Bland Sisters' parents sent them letters, and talked to them in their dreams.

Aside from the radical airship ride itself, Kale and Jaundice have a mission to find (and save!) their long-lost parents. If they succeed (canny adult readers will be aware), the point of the adventure series -- yes, parentless children who have to solve strange situations on their own -- may vanish. But there are magical scarabs, symbol-strewn dreamscapes, and villains in pyramids ahead. How can the girls resist?

As you might guess, seeding my desk with Book 3 was a very clever move by the publicist for Amulet Books (part of Abrams), since I almost immediately HAD TO buy books 1 and 2. And a certain 8-year-old member of my family is about to receive copies of all three. (Hey, not my copies!)

Even better, author Kara LaReau on her website explains the other books she has in the works already, and I'm convinced that there will be more reading adventures ideal for that youngster -- of course, I will need to purchase them and sit down to read them right away myself (just so I know what I'm sending to him, right?).

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

It's a Tough World, but PI Willa Pennington Steps Up, in DARK STREETS, COLD SUBURBS from Aimee Hix

About the only thing I didn't like about the second Willa Pennington investigation, DARK STREETS, COLD SUBURBS, was the title -- for all the rest, from the conflicted protagonist to the neatly twisted and well-paced plotting, I couldn't put the book down.

Willa Pennington is a former law enforcement officer, and in her own thinking, she's wimped out of the job. Now studying -- both on paper and in practice drills -- to pass the exams for a private investigator (PI) license, to work in her dad's business. It's home based, which means that if the bad guys catch on to where the Penningtons live, violence and threat can easily come home with them.

Not that Willa's mom would let "bad guys" get very far. Defensive of her family and wickedly insightful, she's Willa's other mentor in a deep sense. And Willa needs all the back-up she can find: At the mixed martial arts dojo where she's working past her (very reasonable) fear load, there's a teenager who's in extreme danger. A classic "poor little rich girl," the teen, Aja, is struggling to navigate death and destruction while her parents leave her alone in a house where the locks and alarms aren't enough to keep out the crazies. The thing is, they're not acting like the presumed teenaged druggies or house thieves Willa had in mind:
Instead of deflating like expected, like any scared, stupid kid would he kicked back hard and caught me on the jaw. He nailed me in just the right spot and I saw the proverbial stars.

I heard him scrambling up and running off while I shook my head like a cartoon and tried to remember how to count all my teeth, especially the back ones. When I was finally back in the land of the fully cognizant with a wet ass, ripped jeans, and scuffed Chucks, I listened for the sound of a vehicle. The only thing I heard was a very optimistic mourning dove cooing and the chirp of a text alert.


Either Jan's cold case had just gotten super-hot or she had a second case for me. That made three I was juggling, in case anyone was counting.

The rain began coming down in earnest as I limped back to my truck, my knee competing with my pride to see which smarted more.
Most of us don't work out as intensely as Willa, or plan our attacks and defenses in her ways -- but otherwise, this all-too-believable crime novel of suburban danger could be taking place practically next door, and the risks Willa decides to take make sense ... but only good teamwork will get her through.

This one's a keeper, and that means the entire series -- the preceding title (What Doesn't Kill You) and the ones we can expect in the future from Aimee Hix, a northern Virginia author -- need space on the shelves, ASAP. A good pick from Midnight Ink.

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

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Stone Barrington Tackles the "Five Families" in New Suspense from Stuart Woods

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Clearly, Stuart Woods never runs out of ideas. Among his more than 75 titles, the Stone Barrington books make up the largest share: A Delicate Touch looks like the 48th featuring this New Yorker and his circle of employees, friends, informants, and most importantly, police detective Dino Bacchetti. He’ll need all of them to protect his life, as the contents of a hidden safe place him into direct conflict with the most powerful crime families of the region.

Dino’s ex-wife Mary Ann is the daughter of a reputed Mafia leader, Eduardo Bianchi; about to let go of her deceased father’s house to a museum, Mary Ann’s discovered a massive safe—and of course she doesn’t have the combination. Stone Barrington’s immediate assignment is to locate a safecracker to handle the pre-war German mechanism. Hence the need for “a delicate touch”: mess up the combination and the safe becomes even more impossible to ever open.

The safecracker recruited, Sol Fink, is one of the early delights of this entertaining mystery. About a century old, Sol’s the only person in America who can handle the challenge, and he’ll need to be “sprung” from the assisted living home in order to tackle it.
His voice was strong, and he was ramrod straight in his posture. Stone hadn’t expected that.

‘Before you ask,’ Sol said, ‘I’m a hundred and four years old … It’s not my fault,’ Sol replied, climbing into the rear seat. ‘I did everything that’s supposed to kill you, except smoking, so I should have been dead fifty years ago.’

Stone got up front with Fred. ‘Then from now on, Sol,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘I will adopt you as my personal example.’
Opening the safe puts Stone and his crew into enormous danger. Written testimonies in it, probably once “insurance” to protect Bianchi from blackmail, reveal federal crimes committed by members of the notorious “Five Families” of the Italian mob of New York City and beyond. Stone’s happy to turn the records over to Dino and his police squad for investigation, but unfortunately the “owner” of the documents, Mary Ann, can’t resist talking about the contents to a descendant of one of those implicated—a man about to run for President, and whose past and present probably connect to a massive and deadly criminal enterprise.

Wisely, Stone gets out of town, with a few others at risk. But he’s got to return at some point, and nobody crosses Jack Thomas and his political dream boy Hank without violent consequences.

The plot’s clever and involves the owners and top journalists of the city’s premier newspaper. Woods, a pro at keeping the plates spinning, creates a stellar performance of risk, intrigue, and hard-won escapes for his very experienced protagonist, so the big question is, what will Stone have to trade to ensure his and his family’s long-term safety?

This is a classic “Mafia crime” mystery, told in a chatty and delightful way. Don’t count on memorable tropes or depth, as they are not the point of Woods’s efforts. But go ahead and bet on Stone Barrington to work things out. And if you’re going along for the ride, as Dino will be from time to time, be sure to bring a dinner jacket. Stone solves crimes in style.

New this week from Putnam.

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

Outrageous Thriller Adventure from Barry Eisler, THE KILLER COLLECTIVE (Rain + Livia!)

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Master of suspense BarryEisler links two of his series together in the hard-hitting and compulsive thriller The Killer Collective and uncovers much more than a plot to kill a police investigator. Emotions ride high, and ironically, in the midst of explosions of all sorts, Eisler’s two unusual protagonists tangle with matters of the heart.

Readers of Eisler’s long-running “Rain” series will eagerly see the half-Asian John Rain discover he’s not really happy with retirement; when he gets a job offer, he sniffs the wind like a fire horse called back to the station. But the assignment involves killing a woman, a violation of his set-in-stone and well-known rule. Why would anyone think he’d accept such a job?

Before he’s quite figured out what’s happening behind the crime scene on this one, Livia Lone’s investigation leaps into focus. A Seattle sex-crimes detective, Livia bumps into an FBI sting that might force her to not make a move against a vicious child pornography ring. And not just “kiddie porn,” horrible as that is, but this ring is into hurting children, on film. Livia, a “survivor” of something similar, can’t possibly let this slide.

Soon both Rain and Livia are in touch with a former asset they’ve worked with, Dox, himself a former marine sniper. When the team expands to include Rain’s estranged lover (a Mossad agent), a pair of black-ops soldiers, and a formidable former commander, Special Operations legendary Colonel Scott Horton, the mixed motives and conflicting agendas make every planning session into a potential minefield of harsh opinions and strong actions.

Rain can see the dangers clearly—it’s part of his expertise, watching for clues into how people operate, and finding a way to get his goals met. Here, he’s assessing the interaction between SpecOps professionals Larison and Treven:
Larison was watching Treven. The irritation was gone from Larison’s expression, replaced by an odd flatness. I could imagine his calculus: If you’re not with us, you’re against us. And I could imagine the destination to which that logic must have already led him.

As formidable as he was, that was Larison’s one weakness: you could read the danger he radiated. If I had decided to kill Treven, there would have been no changes in affect. I would hae kept trying to cajole him right up until it was done. But when Larison made a decision, if he wasn’t ghosting up on you from your flanks, you’d hae a chance to know his intent before he acted on it.
Dangerous as these allies are, Rain and Livia are at least as dangerous to those around them, each in pursuit of a different form of justice. And each is someone you need to stand well away from, if you’re having to wake them up, because they always come awake fighting.

This dangerous and driven collaborative of agents, motivated to save Livia and cut off the hydra heads of the porn ring trying to assassinate her, become Eisler’s “killing collective.” Page after page, explosion and killing and escape after another, this sharp-edged storyteller pulls off one of the great escapades of all time and sets it in Paris, for extra verve.

And if, afterward, the notion seems unlikely, the collective too dangerous, the odds of success against it—that part won’t matter. The fun of Eisler’s super thriller is in the excitement, the chase, and the survival. The Killer Collective binds it together it into a blazing adventure of espionage escape fiction, perfect to start the new year.

From Thomas & Mercer, January 1 publication.

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