Monday, December 28, 2020

Chicago Culinary Mystery: SMOTHERED, A WHIPPED AND SIPPED MYSTERY, G. P. Gottlieb


 G. P. (Galit) Gottlieb's first culinary mystery, Battered, won fans for both its Chicago neighborhood setting and its punchy, relentless amateur sleuth, Alene Baron. Owner of a café with a specialty in vegan, "cruelty-free" pastries, Alene has an unusual crew working for her: the sister and daughter of the previous owner, as well as some talented young people and her own old friend Ruthie. She knows her customers mostly by name, and otherwise by what they order or how they hang out (and most of them do hang out for a while). 

But nothing's exactly simple for her as the sequel, SMOTHERED, opens. Yes, she's started to date detective Frank Shaw, a nice by-product of his intervention in the earlier book. Yet her employees can be quirky and moody at a level that interferes with business; she's got three kids at home (and a nanny); and her father usually lives with her but at the moment is ill in a hospital.

On top of all this, her business neighbor, a scuzzy guy with a womanizing habit, is running a health gym that serves up smoothies and prepackaged snacks that are starting to rival her own food business. When the neighbor is found murdered, Alene has every incentive to solve the crime, so she won't be blamed.

Brace for roadblocks in her love life, of course, if Alene's involved with the detective on the case: "It felt weird to talk about plans for the evening while Frank was dealing with Stanley's death. Were their dates always going to be last-minute? And his partner Lee was with him."

Culinary mystery collectors will want this book (published in softcover by D. X. Varos) on their shelves (no recipes, though); so will Chicago-area crime fiction collectors, for the fun of local landmarks and neighborhoods. It does have two marked flaws -- an overabundance of unnecessary characters (to the extent that the book provides a character list before the story starts), and a number of genre-style hints of action or complication to follow that in fact are dropped abruptly, without explanation (even a romantic date that never takes place). Some focused editing would have helped a lot.

That said, the book is a good entry from an author whose professional training was actually in piano and voice; I hope she may bring in some of her expertise in those fields in future books, and I'll watch for those with interest. Publication for this one is scheduled for February 16, 2021.

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



Oceanfront Cozy with Romance, CLOSELY HARBORED SECRETS by Bree Baker


Bree Baker's "Seaside Café Mystery" series from Poisoned Pen Press just reached book 5 with CLOSELY HARBORED SECRETS. This author's writing keeps getting smoother, and her plots, entangled with strands of romance, offer a strong amateur sleuth in action.

This time, Everly Swan's involvement in a murder begins at her seaside island town's annual ghost walk, when she discovers the dying body of an avid map collector and possible opponent of her great aunts -- who has scraped Everly's name into the sand with her final strength. Is it an accusation, or a call for Everly to solve the crime?

Of course, she's not gaining popularity by stepping into such trouble, and this time she has more at stake than ever, since her beloved great aunt Fran is running for mayor of the town of Charm. Any bad press for Everly could cost Aunt Fran the election.

Top that off with the huge complications she's facing in her romantic life with Detective Grady Hays and his family, and Everly's got tension in every direction. But also a lot of friendship and affection, sweetening the mystery in Baker's accustomed style.

Dixie's murder had shaken me. I'd already seen too many deaths since my return to the island, and Dixie had carved my name into the ground with her final breaths. I had no idea how I'd heard the scratching over the sound of the wind, but the whole night had felt somehow surreal. Right down to the doppelganger flapper who'd let me to Dixie's office and pointed me to the book of island families on her desk. All in all, I was freaked out, feeling a tornado of emotions and wholly exhausted.

Baker delicately hints at possible ghostly involvement, and gives Everly's 170-year-old house a spooky role in the increasing level of threat targeting this entrepreneur. And what about that curse on all the romances in her family—does that mean she should walk away from Grady ... if he doesn't walk away from her first?

This charming Southern cozy wraps up with three of Everly's recipes, in the tradition of the genre. Series readers will likely turn to those pages first! But this is an easy book to step into without reading the other four titles first, and makes a delightful break from the stresses of ordinary life.

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

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Crime in Winter's Harsh Landscape: SNOWDRIFT from Helene Tursten


Swedish author Helene Tursten provided a strong police procedural series featuring Detective Inspector Irene Huss, set mostly in urban Gothenburg and portraying the fierce rivalry among police detectives, including the bitter gender and ethnic gaps that persist in today's culture. And that series earned a place on many a crime fiction collector's shelf as either Scandinavian crime fiction or women's police procedurals.

But Tursten's second series is stronger, launched in The Hunting Game (yes, brace for how humans target each other) and then Winter Grave. Her 2020 release through Soho Crime (imprint of Soho Press) is SNOWDRIFT. This is one of the rare crime novels where the book really will make a more dramatic impression on readers who've taken the books in sequence.

Since many Soho Crime authors are less highly advertised than, say, Grisham or Patterson or Penny, this may still be the first Tursten book many readers pick up. So here's a quick backstory: Detective Inspector Embla Nyström tackles violent crime in more than the city of Gothenburg. An avid hunter, she's been out in the winter forests every year. She's also been a competitive boxer and still has those lightning reflexes. But at age 28, she's also landed two traumas that shape her life: One is physical, a mauling described in an earlier book that gave her so much head damage that she won't be able to compete in the ring again (though that won't limit her self-defense). The other, and the root of the plot in SNOWDRIFT, is her acute sense of responsibility for a girlfriend's disappearance under violent threat. She's been searching for her friend Lollo ever since—and suffering crippling nightmares that affect her professional life.

So when she gets a terribly short phone call from Lollo herself, at the start of the book, nothing can dissuade her from investigating where her friend may be, and under what duress. Shortly thereafter, she pays a courtesy call and discovers a mob murder. The victim is one of the criminals who abducted Lollo, years before.

Suddenly Embla and her colleagues are neck deep in international intrigue and danger, along with all the prime areas of Eastern European criminal activity, including human trafficking. Is that what's happened to Lollo?

Marlaine Delargy's translation from the Swedish provides a slight flattening to the dialogue, without the rhythms of native English. To some readers, that may make the book feel "more Scandinavian" in its stiffness. Tursten's rapid pacing and portrayal of the risks and bonds of team policing override most of the drawback of the language, along with Embla's overwhelming sense of threat and peril. 

Series readers and first-timers alike may find it necessary to ignore the phone and email, and embed themselves in this dramatic winter crime novel. Brace for a page-turner, and enjoy this fierce new police procedural turned thriller, with its engaging and memorable "wounded" detective.

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

Monday, December 14, 2020

MADNESS OF THE Q, Second Sam Teagarden Political Adventure from Gray Basnight


 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“If you like a book that lands you back in reality feeling relaxed and happy about what could happen to an ordinary guy tossed into deadly events, Madness of the Q is ideal. It might even get you through the holiday season, feeling like you and Sam both have it pretty good after all.”

Breaking out of genre expectations, the new international thriller from Gray Basnight features a second appearance of math professor Sam Teagarden: a happily married American who agrees without argument to step forward when his nation calls him to fly to Europe to examine an epidemic of suicide and the ancient document that may be causing it, and who, when propositioned on a cruise ship by a woman who strips her lovely body in his cabin, prefers to get out on deck and have another imagined conversation with his smart and very supportive wife.

Madness of the Q leaps from one messy political murder to the next, as a killer working for the Vatican chases Sam through Israel and across Europe. Sam’s gentle stumbling pace upgrades to a desperate race, as a second assassination threat, this time from a group called Freedom From God (FFG), targets him as well. Once upon a time a CIA code analyst, and technically called into this case by the FBI, Sam is nonetheless way out of his depth, as even the first threat to his life sets off his posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) at maximum level.

That PTSD is well earned, after what happened to Sam in Basnight’s 2018 thriller, Flight of the Fox. Sam, it turns out, is politically significant to both his nation and his world, because his analytical skills in the preceding adventure impelled him to discover, and then reveal to the world, corruption within the US government. He has become a symbol, a person who can be trusted completely. That’s why the FBI wants him to come reassure the world about the ancient document and its implications.

This newly unearthed document is Q­—that is, part of the source document for the Christian gospels. It includes a fragment that apparently is setting believers to kill themselves, and nonbelievers to try to get Sam to vouch for what’s said there.

Almost accidentally, he’s the sole survivor of a failed US government and Israeli operation that lands him with the car, spy devices, and huge wad of cash. But Sam’s no trained spy himself, despite his brief work in a CIA code team:

“He certainly had enough cash for bribery, although waving money around was not something he had much experience with. Neither was he experienced in secretly traveling around the Mideast with zealots hunting him like lions on the savanna.”

Although he can kill if forced to, Sam’s basically a nice ordinary professor who’d rather be home with his wife and students. As a result, instead of a Patterson or Le Carré global thriller, Madness of the Q feels like an updated and gender-switched version of the Mrs. Pollifax “spy mysteries” written by Dorothy Gilman in the 1960s and 1970s.

As Sam’s wife, in one of his imagined conversations with her, tells him: “Don’t overthink it. And don’t put so much faith in that silly firearm. You’re Sam Teagarden. You don’t outshoot villains. You outsmart them.”

Here’s the book’s somewhat annoying flaw: Sam doesn’t actually outsmart anyone. Even his math insights are basic to an extreme. But he does outlast the villains, by hiding, jumping, and clinging to those who want to assist him, save his life, and get him to the meeting where he can testify about the fragments of the Q. This turns out to be highly effective as a story device: Sam is such a well-meaning and honest person that the book becomes a page-turner, and while his choices repeatedly flop for lack of spy savvy, his alliances prove well chosen in protecting him and getting him to the unexpected and wryly humorous final twists of the adventure.

If you like a book that lands you back in reality feeling relaxed and happy about what could happen to an ordinary guy tossed into deadly events, Madness of the Q is ideal. It might even get you through the holiday season, feeling like you and Sam both have it pretty good after all. 

[Down & Out Books, released Dec. 14 -- a nice gift book, as well as holiday relief!]

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

Monday, December 07, 2020

Predictably Charming New Mystery from Alexander McCall Smith, HOW TO RAISE AN ELEPHANT

 [Originally published in New York Journal of Books]

“Mma Ramotswe and her allies practice that love of land and courtesy to each other in gently amusing ways that eventually resolve the mysteries, potential crimes, and tensions of their lives. In a time of pandemic, there could be few more rewarding and soothing tales to read than How to Raise an Elephant.

AlexanderMcCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series can be relied on for tender and kind surprises, and the reliability of love and trust among the main characters. Of course they have their flaws—Precious Ramotswe, who leads the unusual detective agency in Bostwana, is a woman of “traditional build” and careful attention to the guidance found in her detection manual written by Clovis Andersen. She can thus be a little short-sighted, and a bit hard-wearing on her small but practical van. Her assistant, Mma Makutsi, a secretarial school graduate with big dreams, tends to be suspicious and not very generous in her assessments of potential clients. And then there is Charlie, the brash youth employed parttime by the Mma Ramotswe and parttime in the adjoining car repair business of her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.

In How to Raise and Elephant, the first mystery provided is fairly readily solved: The bent tailgate of the detective agency’s van and its powerful earthy scent after Charlie borrows it lead directly to the apprentice’s use of the van to transport a baby elephant. But Charlie’s neighborhood is not at all suitable for a growing elephant, even though it appears to consider him its mother.

There had been many occasions in the past when they had been obliged to clear up some mess left by Charlie. They could remain uninvolved if they discovered somebody else was looking after an elephant—such an elephant would be none of their business—but there was a sense in which any elephant in Charlie’s keeping was their problem, or soon would become just that.

And negotiating a future home for the friendly but ungainly beast requires all of the skills in courtesy and gentle teasing that Mma Ramotswe can summon.

Meanwhile, the detective agency owner has a family-related plea for financial assistance that Mma Makutsi mistrusts. Whether to believe the sad tale of a relative and donate accordingly requires attentive investigation, according to the best principles of detection.

Alexander McCall Smith’s storytelling provides great charm, as he unravels the experience and thinking of his rural but increasingly wise protagonists. A classic example is how Mma Ramotswe ponders the role of royalty, including the Queen and the Queen’s son, Prince Charles:

And there was Prince Charles, who she knew loved Bostwana. When he came again to visit the country, she would try to invite him for tea. He would be too busy to come, of course, and there were people around him who would fend off invitations, but she knew they would have a great deal to talk about: about the rains and the crops; about looking after the world; about remembering when all is said and done, we lived on the land and had to give the land the love that it needed if it was to continue to provide for us.

Mma Ramotswe and her allies practice that love of land and courtesy to each other in gently amusing ways that eventually resolve the mysteries, potential crimes, and tensions of their lives. In a time of pandemic, there could be few more rewarding and soothing tales to read than How to Raise an Elephant.

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

Book Within a Book, in MOONFLOWER MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz


[Originally published in New York Journal of Books]

“Moonflower Murders will be either adored or dreaded by readers, with no middle ground. Dare to open it if you’re ready to face both page length and puzzle solving.”

Moonflower Murders is a sequel to the noted Magpie Murders, and events follow from the earlier book. However, Anthony Horowitz gives plenty of guideposts for those entering the series at this point, as publisher Susan Ryeland is called back to England to deal with a mess created by her now-deceased author, Alan Conway. Conway’s fiction involved detective Atticus Pünd at a hotel clearly duplicating one where an owner is now missing and presumed murdered herself. And it all seems to result from the fictional crime and criminals, who are distorted versions of the “real” people at and around the existing hotel.

That should be adequate warning to readers that this is a puzzle mystery, one where the clues interlink and echo through two or more layers of narrative. Moreover, the book is a page-turner where suspense keeps ramping up, as various figures experience threats, and Susan agonizes over whether she could have prevented the whole mess. She has, in the past, tried to corral her author and get him to present a more logical and less malicious work. But as she soon enough discovers, all the perverse twists that Conroy inserted in his murder mystery are deliberate hints toward a real-life murderer who has already struck at the posh hotel, with an immigrant employee seized and convicted of the crime.

The missing British hotel co-owner, Cecily, worked out that the Romanian immigrant had been framed, and was about to pursue justice, when she abruptly vanished. And, of course, the closer Susan gets to figuring out means, motive, and opportunity for the real killer, the more risk she draws toward herself.

Once outside I found myself face to face with the nanny, Eloise … She was furious. In a way it was a repeat of what had happened that morning with Joanne Williams—yet this was different. The emotion coming from her was so strong, so pronounced, that I was actually quite shocked. …

‘Who are you?’ she asked.

‘I’m a friend of the family. I’ve been asked to help.’

‘We don’t need help. We just need to be left alone.’ She had a French accent that belonged in an art-house film. Her eyes locked on to mine.

I brushed past her and walked back towards the hotel. When I was some distance away, I turned back to take a last look at the house. She was still there, standing on the doorstep, watching me, warning me not to come back.

In a surprising twist of the Moonflower Murders, the entire clue-laden earlier manuscript that triggered the latest death is inserted within the book—so, as readers discover, there are two books included here, for a giant total of 581 suspicion-packed pages. In the tradition of Agatha Christie, the characters are trapped together and the clues are abundant, but perhaps only Susan Ryeland has the motivation to assemble them all and dare to accuse the killer.

The book’s size recalls mysteries of an earlier age—such as a Wilkie Collins crime novel. And like Hercule Poirot, Susan Ryeland’s contribution to solving the crime won’t come from her daring as much as from her determination to solve the puzzle created by her own rather wicked former author.

Moonflower Murders will be either adored or dreaded by readers, with no middle ground. Dare to open it if you’re ready to face both page length and puzzle solving. It should also appeal to those who adored Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Lives of Evelyn Hardcastle. Ready, get set, solve the puzzle! 

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

 

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Fielding a New Author after M. C. Beaton's Passing, in HOT TO TROT (Agatha Raisin)


 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Viewed as a “debut novel” by R. W. Green, Hot to Trot is a fine first showing. Red herrings and plot twists and ridiculous moments of embarrassment abound, and the most important characters survive to rise again. Viewed as a continuation of M. C. Beaton’s oeuvre, results are a bit more iffy.”

Beloved author M. C. Beaton (née Marion Chesney) died in 2019, but not before testing “R. W. Green” as her potential fill-in. According to Green’s Foreword to Hot to Trot, Beaton asked for a “first sample chapter” for the book she had in mind, and found only one or two changes to make in the version Green wrote. Green continued, “I thoroughly enjoyed working with Marion and I am honoured that she trusted me to meddle with her characters. I will miss her more than I can say.”

Reader, be warned: Green does not duplicate Beaton’s writing style in the long run, although many of the plot points of Hot to Trot were clearly discussed before the original author’s passing. One, for example, was a road to riches for protagonist Agatha Beaton’s ex, Sir Charles Fraith. Clearly, the two writing collaborators also shared a sense of what was humorous about Agatha, and both adored her as a character.

That said, this book will not please all series fans, since both the tone of narrative voice and the particular shadings of the characters are definitely different. On the other hand, for those not yet attached to the series, or who just enjoy humorous crime fiction without strings to the “original,” this is a lively and entertaining read, with a few strands of puerile British humor like repeating the phrase “rumpy-pumpy” (apparently slang for jovially “getting laid”). Which actually, come to think of it, is perfectly fitting for a British romp through the country lanes of mystery.

The main point is that Sir Charles, still an object of Agatha’s exasperated affection, has made a terrible mistake in commiting to marry a power-hungry fortune chaser with legal clout: Miss Mary Brown-Fields. In spite of crashing the wedding, Agatha fails to halt the proceedings, and discovers that she truly hates “Lady Mary Fraith.”

Her friend Mrs. Bloxby comments over sherry, “So the battle lines are drawn. It is always very awkward trying to involve oneself in whatever goes on between a husband and wife.” Agatha’s response is, “Not for a private detective. It’s pretty much my professional stock in trade.”

Despite the humiliating arrest that follows, Agatha’s soon able to discover blackmail in progress, and begins a series of costume and persona shifts that dazzles the reader and reveals the crime underway. But the path to resolution is paved with further humiliations, mistakes, and even betrayals, all packed into a village mystery that shifts back and forth between comedy and tenderness.

Viewed as a “debut novel” by R. W. Green, Hot to Trot is a fine first showing. Red herrings and plot twists and ridiculous moments of embarrassment abound, and the most important characters survive to rise again. Viewed as a continuation of M. C. Beaton’s oeuvre, results are a bit more iffy. But as Agatha says at one point, “You could try to be a bit nicer to me. We are still on the same side, after all.”

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

Third Cat Kinsella Crime Novel from Caz Frear, SHED NO TEARS

 


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Frear’s writing has the sharp dark tang that Tana French exhibits, and she updates the British crime narrative to the dangerous conflicts of loyalty that Stuart Neville paints best, with their hungry roots in the ever-decomposing past.”

The third British crime novel in the Cat Kinsella series, Shed No Tears, strikes two powerful storylines: one of a serial murderer, imprisoned, whose full set of crimes may not have been uncovered yet, and the other of Kinsella’s personal closet of secrets. Though she’s steadily making her way as a member of London’s Metropolitan Police (she’s now a Detective Constable), her dad was and is connected with major criminals, and she’s managed to keep this out of sight in her own career. Until now.

The pressure’s on. The body of Holly Kemp, long presumed to be a victim of a convicted killer, turns up in the wrong place, in the wrong condition, and with a manner of killing that just doesn’t fit. Sure, serial killers can change their modus operandi. But the alleged killer can’t make up his mind whether he did or did not commit this murder, and the more Kinsella and her partner Luigi Parnell probe, the more the case problems keep leading back to the original investigation. And investigators.

Nobody could fault Kinsella for being slow to put together the pieces here. Her own heroes in the police force have done some of the manipulation that’s hiding the trick. Plus her dad’s been in the hospital, her sister is way too nosy, and her boyfriend can’t understand why she won’t introduce him to her family. One reason is, he might realize the crime connection; the other is, Kinsella broke the rules by pursuing this guy when he was a crime victim, and her sister is all too likely to divulge a much worse complicating factor (yes, dear old dad again, in another form).

Frear’s writing is intense and suspenseful, with a perfect balance of red herrings and dogged pursuit of the truth. She spills Kinsella’s stresses a bit at a time, from a first person point of view that always hides something:

“I’m going to be the best aunt in the world.

Because I can live with the Bad Sister tag. I’ve been living my whole life with the Bad Daughter tag. But the Bad Aunt tag—when it’s occasionally flung—stings like a bitch.

Although not as much as the Corrupt Officer tag.

The most poisonous tag of all, known only to me.”

The case turns at last, thanks to Kinsella’s insistent doubts about a “perfect” witness whose clearly memorized spiel of seeing Holly Kemp enter the killer’s home is too darn perfect. Her partner, without exactly countering her, comments, “You’re doing your suspicious face, Kinsella. I’m not even looking at you and I know you’re doing your suspicious face.”

But in uncovering what motivated the witness, Kinsella puts her own careful stack of cards at risk, not just of physical danger but of baring all her secrets.

Frear’s writing has the sharp dark tang that Tana French exhibits, and she updates the British crime narrative to the dangerous conflicts of loyalty that Stuart Neville paints best, with their hungry roots in the ever-decomposing past. If there’s a single weak spot in Shed No Tears, it’s in the overly optimistic ending. Yet with Frear’s record to judge from, it’s a good bet that the sequel to come will turn out to be more menacing and dangerous than Kinsella could have guessed, even from her own family’s experience.

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

Monday, November 30, 2020

Afghanistan Suspense, in THE OPIUM PRINCE by Jasmine Aimaq


Look at author Jasmine Aimaq's career trajectory and it's hard to imagine her turning to crime fiction: Of Afghan/Swedish lineage, she "grew up in several countries, including Afghanistan and the United States," has taught international relations at the university level, and worked for both the Pacific Council on International Policy, and Global Green USA. Now she's director of communications for Quest University Canada.

The review copy I read, however, spells out her motivation on a front-page insert: "My desire to tell their story coalesced with my lifelong interest in literature, especially fiction that illuminates the role people inadvertently play in world-changing events."

Daniel Sajadi has returned to Kabul in the 1970s, heading a US agency dedicated to persuading Afghan farmers to give up their very profitable opium poppy fields in exchange for agricultural assistance. He's trying a mix of money and on-ground maneuvers, and has a few fields to show for his efforts, but clearly isn't making friends in the process.

Trying to argue the case for what he's doing, he speaks to a man he perceives as just another local:

"How long have you had this field?" Daniel said.

"I don't know. I don't like time."

"That's understandable. Time isn't working in your favor. Your days here are numbered."

"Everybody's days are numbered."

"Some of us have more favorable numbers than others. You're up against men who are smarter than you, with much more money. This will become farmland."

"It's already farmland," Taj said.

Daniel has completely misunderstood Taj's role and approach. When he accidentally kills a Kochi (tribal) girl named Telaya, he falls under the power of this man, who has enormous power in the opium business, and suddenly Daniel's world turns upside down. Learning from brutal example that his own efforts are literally killing local people, Daniel begins to fall apart. Whether it's his guilt or the torment he's being manipulated into, he's also haunted by Telaya's spirit.

THE OPIUM PRINCE, named of course for the opium khan wielding the power, Taj Maleki, is offered as a "literary thriller." It's a lively read, crammed with risk and danger. Although it's easy to sympathize with Daniel's plight, it's frustrating that he repeatedly fails to achieve his own goals, or even to form strong actions. Yes, it's hard to see any better choices -- but, again, frustrating, and when he finally does resolve the pressure on his life, it's not through significant growth or change, other than desperation. In addition, the haunting he's enduring turns out slowly to be due to his own misunderstanding of the circumstances around him, which the reader understands long before Daniel has even a clue. He's also the victim of major betrayals, presented as earned by his own carelessness and refusal to understand.

I have two main tests for deciding how good a book is -- and this one fails one test and passes the other with high marks. The one it fails is the count of how many book-loving friends I'd want to give it to. Answer: None. It portrays too sad a set of failures. But the other is whether I'd want to read it again myself, and on that, the book scores a strong "yes." Aimaq has a lot of insight to share, and I look forward to noticing and appreciating more of it with future re-reading.

From Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press, and released December 1, just in time to remind yourself that there may be more important factors in life than the holiday gift list and strained absence of guests.

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

Monday, November 23, 2020

Newest Mickey Haller Crime Fiction from Michael Connelly, THE LAW OF INNOCENCE


 [Originally published in New York Journal of Books]

“Connelly spins a story where the risk is life itself, and the collateral damage may be integrity. Watching Mickey Haller work out how to balance the two makes this a compelling crime novel that lingers in value long after the last page.”

What is the difference between innocent and not guilty? Michael Connelly’s The Law of Innocence, extending his “Lincoln Lawyer” series, confronts Mickey Haller with that important issue, in painful ways. Mickey knows he hasn’t murdered a former client who never paid the bill for Mickey’s defense work. But when the man’s corpse is found by police, jammed in the trunk of the Lincoln that Mickey drives, with the killing bullet smashed on Mickey’s own garage floor … who’s going to believe he didn’t do the job?

Connelly writes two significant California mystery series. One features police investigator Harry Bosch, always in pursuit of criminals and punishment for crime. Mickey, on the other hand, is a defense attorney whose demand for justice takes a very different form: If the State can’t prove a case against his clients, they shouldn’t lose their freedoms. That’s the “not guilty” side: when a jury concludes the crime hasn’t been successfully (“beyond reasonable doubt”) pinned on someone.

The frustration for Mickey in this book is, he knows he’s innocent. A handful of people—his staff, his ex-wife Maggie, his daughter, and thank goodness, his half-brother Harry Bosch—accept this innocence. But the frame against him is so clever and complete that even his attorney friends have doubts about him.

In placing Mickey in the hands of the law and a furious prosecutor who’s convinced he committed the crime, Bosch sends his protagonist to prison for months. Living on three meals a day of bologna sandwiches makes Mickey’s clothing hang loose, and he struggles to stay alive as the people he’s offended in the past, including sheriffs who run the prison system, see a chance for brutal revenge.

Connelly spins this series as a first-person narrative, which slows the pace. There are plenty of action scenes, but also a lot more inner conversation than in the Harry Bosch books. Micky reflects:

I had no illusions about my innocence. I knew it was something only I could know for sure. And I knew that it wasn’t a perfect shield against injustice. It was no guarantee of anything. The clouds were not going to open for some sort of divine light of intervention.

I was on my own.

… In the law of innocence, for every man not guilty of a crime, there is a man out there who is. And to prove true innocence, the guilty man must be found and exposed to the world.

The back story of the murder itself—who profits, from what looks like a pure case of revenge against Mickey?—must be determined in order to find that “guilty man.” Working under a near-impossible deadline, and directed by Mickey from his cell much of the time, his team quickly finds promising threads. But they lead, in multiple ways, to dead ends.

Along the way, two big changes take place in the people around him, as Mickey sweats his way to discovery of the pieces: his half-brother Harry Bosch aggressively takes his side (even financially), and Mickey falls back in love with this daughter’s mother. The feeling might even be mutual. Will it make them more successful in solving the crime in time to get Mickey off the hot seat, though?

Passionate followers of the Bosch series may not find much to enjoy in The Law of Innocence: Bosch’s appearances are brief and not very interesting, compared to the character himself. That’s part of the cost of Connelly’s choice to write Mickey “from the inside.” The criminal enterprise that forms the back story of the murder is also rather weak. That said, Connelly carries out what he’s endlessly powerful in doing: He spins a story where the risk is life itself, and the collateral damage may be integrity. Watching Mickey Haller work out how to balance the two makes this a compelling crime novel that lingers in value long after the last page.

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Brief Mention: New Cozy Vet Mystery from Eileen Brady, SADDLED WITH MURDER



Eileen Brady already has four earlier "Kate Turner, DVM, Mysteries" from Poisoned Pen Press, but with the press transition to an imprint of Sourcebooks, Brady's books are also making a transition, positioning SADDLED WITH MURDER as a "cozy." Making it especially appealing for this season is its Christmas theme, twisted with an office holiday party that goes frighteningly awry.

Kate's staffers open up a game about saying out loud a "selfish Santa" Christmas wish. Frazzled and exhausted, Kate is foolish enough to wish she didn't have to deal with a couple of the practice's most challenging (human) clients -- and a staffer catches this on video and releases it on social media, without thinking about what could follow.

Soon Kate herself is taking deep breaths but unable to corral the tumbling emergencies: 

After a few more breaths I'd started to calm down, when the speakers came to life with a loud and lively chorus of "On the First Day of Christmas." I replaced their words with my own.

Two dead clients, one ex-boyfriend, and a present dumped in the trash.

From tender moments with dogs and other companion animals, to a struggle with an out-of-control adopted wild horse, to the machinations of staff, family, and boyfriends, Brady provides a generous set of veterinary and very human sidelights to her mystery in process. 

SADDLED WITH MURDER is a treat for animal lovers and for collectors of veterinary, horse, or dog mysteries, and a delightful lightweight treat for relaxing before, during, or after Christmas. 

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

Brief Mention: THIRST FOR JUSTICE, Medical and Environmental Thriller by David R. Boyd


Canadian author David R. Boyd has an interesting background for his fiction: A UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and an associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability (University of British Columbia), his online presence features nine works of nonfiction, almost entirely environmental.

In his debut thriller, THIRST FOR JUSTICE, Boyd presents a trauma surgeon struggling to meet overwhelming health care needs in the Congo. Michael McDougall is gifted in the operating room -- but like the other volunteers for the fictional International Medical Assistance Foundation, he's seeing casualties that result from simple needs for food and clean water. By the end of the first chapter, we also know he's a desperate risk taker on behalf of his patients, opening up his own blood vessel to create an emergency blood transfusion.

But it's the events of the next chapter that turn his mind, soul, and life inside-out. Caught out on the road by a merciless crew of Mai Mai brigands, he sees his driver murdered, his colleague raped, and he can't shake the notion that his own "by the book" response to a demand for money has resulted in these horrors. Sent home to America to recuperate from the trauma, he instead spirals into both posttraumatic stress disorder and the conviction that he can hold the US government to ransom and "make" it pay for clean water for destitute populations.

Boyd presents a neat plot possibility for Michael's threat to his country, and the plan initially works smoothly. But then things twist far out of shape, as both corruption and brutality in the halls of power distort Michael's intended results and turn him into an international criminal.

Although Boyd is a skillful narrator, his shifts among points of view and his portraits of power both suffer from his lack of expertise in this field. The book's ending is also a bit hard to buy into. Then again, Michael Crichton's books had similar issues, and look how people have enjoyed those, anyway!

If you are collecting Canadian mystery authors, or environmental thrillers, THIRST FOR JUSTICE belongs on your shelf. Since Boyd's fiction craft is still a work in progress, this won't make a casual gift book -- but on the other hand, it's always exciting to snag a debut where there's a good chance the author's going to continue to mature and deepen. This is one of those opportunities.

Published by ECW Press of Toronto. 

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


Saturday, November 07, 2020

Crime Fiction from Canada: RUNNING FROM THE DEAD, Mike Knowles


Other than Louise Penney's work, books by Canadian authors are often slow to reach the US. I was glad to receive (from ECW Press) a copy of the eighth book by Mike Knowles, RUNNING FROM THE DEAD, for review this season. The book came out in June, and it's well worth tracking down via bookstore order on an online retailer.

Private investigator Sam Jones has spent six years searching for an abducted 8-year-old. He's taken plenty of other cases during that time but hunting for Ruth Verne's child never left his priority list, and he regularly reports in to the grieving but ever-hopeful mom.

What he certainly never expected was losing his own tight control upon discovering what had happened to the child and confronting the perpetrator. As Jones starts to face his own shattering reaction, he believes he has only a short time—maybe days—before he'll have to answer for what he's done, to the police and the justice system.

So when he finds a cryptic pair of scrawls in a coffee-shop bathroom that sound like they're from a girl or young woman being held captive, his inner clock starts ticking: If he couldn't save Ruth Verne's son, can he at least rescue someone else's daughter?

Of course it's more complicated than that, and more horrifying, too, as Jones digs into the worst corners of his city on the hunt for the young victim who's asked for help. 

And he can't get away from what the young women's former foster mom says to him:

Norah wiped away her tears with the back of her hand. "You're not here for her. You're here for you."

"Yes," Jones said.

"You're here for hope."

Jones nodded.

Norah took two fists of his coat. "I don't care if you're not here for her. I don't care, because you think you can bring her back. She's still out there and you think you can bring her back. Please—please bring her back to me."

"I'll try."

"Do better than that. Promise me."

Jones gently took hold of Norah's hands and pulled her fists away from his chest. "This world hates promises. All I can do is try."

Knowles leavens the plot by including some unforgettable characters, from the barista willing to pitch in, to an aging reprobate doing his best to cast off his daughter's efforts to make him go straight. RUNNING FROM THE DEAD swerves back and forth between emotion and action, with tight twists of plot and highly satisfying surprises. 

It may have taken a while to get hold of a Mike Knowles crime novel—but now I'll be watching hard for more. And by the way, if you need a comparable to think about ... think Travis McGee, but even better.

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

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Stuart Woods Reinvents James Bond in SHAKEUP


 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Woods provides a lively romp of a book, but it’s built for entertainment, not solving puzzles. Pick up a copy to update your sense of why James Bond was and is adored.”

The newest Stone Barrington mystery from Stuart Woods, Shakeup, offers a lively fantasy world of being rich, attractive, and surrounded by great friends and wonderful lovers. Add a touch of crime and investigation, and you have a perfect luxurious visit to a New York City version of Bond—James Bond.

Spoiler alert in terms of earlier books in the series: Stone’s longtime and delightful lover Holly Barker has indeed reached the US Presidency, so Shakeup opens with the Inauguration. Of course, Stone’s not obvious about his relationship with Holly in public, but he’s there for the big event, witnessing (in his world) the second woman to  step into the top US leadership role. It’s all good, including the warmth between Stone and Holly, and the civilized game plan of neither person being sexually exclusive when the other one’s not in town.

The tough part begins when Stone returns to his hotel suite and finds a newly dead woman on the floor in front of him.

Good thing Dino Bacchetti is both Stone’s suitemate and able to directly call in the chief of the DC police, Deborah Myers. Dino is also Stone’s former partner from their New York Police Department days. That means he’s one of the few that Stone can entirely trust, as the victim’s identity and the several individuals with motive to frame Stone become clear.

Meanwhile, Stone’s adjustment to his own new situation involves finding federal agents at his own home.

“‘Oh, hello, Mr. Barrington. I’m Agent Jeffs.’

‘Hello, Agent Jeffs,’ Stone said. Jeffs holstered his weapon and shook Stone’s hand. ‘I’m alone, so you can stand down.’

‘I’m afraid not, sir. Washington has listed your residence and the Carlyle Hotel as places frequently visited by the president, so we’ll have one person on duty here at all times.’

… It was damned inconvenient, Stone thought.”

Rearranging almost everything at this point, including how he and Dino go out to dinner and where, keeps Stone hopping. So do the women in his life; his staff is adept at quickly rearranging his place, all fresh and welcoming, for the next one arriving. It’s all a sweet life of affection and pleasure—or, as Stuart Woods describes one of the new president’s arrivals where Stone is staying, “They enjoyed a long kiss, then more of each other.”

Interrupted, of course, by gunshots and another death or two, scattered around.

Things quickly heat up, and only Stone and Dino are really on top of all the possible suspects and motives involved, until the President sends her own powerful help to pitch in.

Don’t count on solving the crime before Stone; Woods provides a lively romp of a book, but it’s built for entertainment, not solving puzzles. Pick up a copy to update your sense of why James Bond was and is adored, and have fun imagining how the other half might investigate and celebrate.

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