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 CarrĂ©. If that is indeed the case, then the author has learned to portray a female and still employable version of Le CarrĂ©’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.
-->