Saturday, October 10, 2020

Second Forensics Mystery from Sara E. Johnson, THE BONES REMEMBER (New Zealand)

Ready for some armchair travel with a hint of JAWS? Sara E. Johnson provides the ride in her second New Zealand-set Alexa Glock Forensics Mystery, THE BONES REMEMBER. Once you discover, with this dauntless forensic investigator, the wilds of Stewart Island, you'll want more pages. And the shark attacks and treachery along the way will keep the pages turning.

Never heard of Stewart Island? It's not fictional -- it's the third largest land mass making up New Zealand, and it's challenging to get to and very, very cold even in summer. On the wild ferry ride, Glock's already coming to grips with the local controversy over "cage diving," a way to see sharks close up. It's not just the presence of tourists -- the 300-plus full-time locals are dependent on their money, anyway -- but the sharks get teased onto coming to the cages, through baiting that's just enough to leave them hungry, and some of the locals feel the sharks then become more dangerous for local divers and anglers.

Alexa is on assignment, her first time being sent a substantial distance by the Forensic Service Center in Auckland where she's managed to find work. An expert in the forensics of teeth, she'll have a chance to extend her experience to shark bites and related murders, starting with a body some distance into the extensive Department of Conservation lands. Is the death hunting related? Animal caused? The body's on a pile of kelp, and at first glance looks like a mutilated seal. Alexa asks the question pertinent to her examination:

"How much time do we have with the tide?"

 "Fifteen, twenty minutes."

The examination would need to be quick. Cause and time of death were her main goals. Massive tissue and blood loss, from the looks of it, for cause, and time of death? She looked for a watch on the victim's wrist. There was only one wrist left, and no watch—rarely was TOD that simple. Body temperature may have been influenced by water temperature. She gently lifted the man's right arm, noting rigor mortis was presnt. The man had been dead anywhere from six to forty-eight hours. It was a start, but she wondered how much of that time he'd been immerse or beached. Cold water would delay rigor mortis, so she guessed he had been beached for at least six hours. Probably washed up during the night.

She backed up and looked around, at the beach, at the bystanders watching, at the expanse of Pacific hiding the monster responsible for this carnage. She photographed the body from different angles. "Sketch the scene, please," she told Constable Kopae, who had joined them. A sketch would provide depth of field that photos couldn't.

 Wallace interrupted. "Can you tell if the bloke was Maori?"

That's an important question, but the answer will have to wait—pretty rough on the families waiting in the village for word of who this is. Meanwhile, a shark expert with his own show has arrived on the island, with his own agenda. And a different way of seeing things.

Duffy came close. "Mother of God." Against the white sheet, the plundered eye socket gaped like violent art. "The shark clamped the head in his jaws," Duffy said his voice so close Alexa could feel warm puffs. "It's called the killing bite. Then comes the lateral head-shake, which ruptures the neck. It's broken, yeah?'

She reached her hands under the paper cover and gently manipulated the spinal cord. Rag doll snapped, the image of a shark with a man's head clamped in its jaws, body whipping back and forth, flashed in her mind. The floor undulated. She grabbed the exam bed to keep from crumpling.

Johnson's abundant details of forensics, crime investigation, and New Zealand itself make her crime writing authoritative and intriguing. She leavens this with quick twists of plot and suspects, and a minor thread of romance, as Alexa ponders whether she wants a romantic connection with Detective Inspector Bruce Horne (see the first book in this series, Molten Mud Murder). When Horne takes over her island investigation, it's just in time to keep her from seriously overreaching her position. And that too is a pleasure -- that the many mistakes of amateur sleuths are replaced in Johnson's crime novels by expertise, eagerness, and racing forward.

Johnson steps carefully around potential issues of cultural appropriation; it would take the expert eye, of course, of a Maori reader to say whether she has fully avoided it, but casual readers will probably be comfortable with the distance she has selected for this New Zealand exploration.

The series is published by Poisoned Pen Press, a Sourcebooks imprint; add it to the TBR stack for enjoyable reading with a less common setting and a mostly sensible sleuth.

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

Thursday, October 08, 2020

"Rachel Savernake Golden Age Mystery" MORTMAIN HALL, Martin Edwards

The "Golden Age" mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s elevate a sense of style, although which style depended on which continent the authors called home. A striking number of women's names are among the top writers of that period, a good reminder that feminism was neither new nor fragile at that point. Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham were among the British authors (along with Phillip MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, Freeman Wills Crofts, and more). The American authors included John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and Erle Stanley Gardner, and some like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain introduced what's still known as hard-boiled style.

So by placing his Rachel Savernake series of mysteries as "Golden Age," Martin Edwards gives himself a lot to live up to! Book 1 of the series, Gallows Court, was a bold start.

In MORTMAIN HALL, "nice guy" British news reporter Jacob Flint is still struggling to develop front-page stories for his London paper. What seems like an accidental connection with a spectator from the courtroom becomes ominous, though, when he learns that Mrs. Dobell has a serious chip on her shoulder about Judge Savernake, father of the woman Jacob most admires (and, truth be told, fears). Mrs. Dobell continues:

"I believe you are acquainted with the late judge's daughter." The woman's sharp chin lifted. "Rachel Savernake."

He stared. How did Mrs Dobell know of his connection with Rachel?

He cleared his throat. "That's right."

She relaxed into a mischievous smile. "Next time you speak to Miss Savernake, please tell her to get in touch with me at the Circe Club. I should like to talk to her about murder."

With Rachel's somewhat cryptic hints to propel his research, Jacob quickly discovers that the odd and rather threatening Mrs Dobell has re-created herself from a victim into an expert, an author on murder and murderers. "Her single-mindedness reminded him of Rachel. But what had inspired such devotion to the study of crime and the machinery of law and justice?"

Edwards weaves a clever mystery that reaches its peak in a country-house scene, classic for the Golden Age genre. His twists and red herrings are neatly placed. He provides a parallel story in the behind-the-scenes machinations of Rachel and her "servants," who are always at least a mile ahead of the often clueless (but kind) Jacob. Rachel Savernake's back-story in crucial to understanding her maneuvers, and is not completely revealed here, so readers will enjoy MORTMAIN HALL more if they've read Gallows Court; it would be wise to purchase the two books at once if you're new to this series.

It seems likely that Edwards will continue to rise as an author, and if his path includes more of the edgy nastiness of Rachel Savernake, the books will be worth savoring as an arc of development of both characters and author. [The Poisoned Pen Press imprint of Sourcebooks is the publisher.]

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


Hauntingly Delicious Irish Crime Fiction: THE TRAVELLER AND OTHER STORIES, Stuart Neville

Devouring and pondering the character-rich crime novels from Stuart Neville has been a delight since his debut in 2009 with The Ghosts of Belfast. Not only does he give us criminals and investigators torn by their loyalties and losses, but he evokes the abiding presence of The Troubles — Ireland's violent internal war — as a force that nurtures long-term resentment, revenge, and personal damage. When his characters brush up against an opposite force such as redemption, it's often with a raised shoulder or calloused fingers.

After interrupting this string of powerful novels with a couple of thrillers in a different direction (under the nom-de-plume Haylen Beck), Neville returns this season to his earlier characters and scenes in THE TRAVELLER AND OTHER STORIES. Of course, of course, this author must have written short fiction along the way, but it's been less visible. Now the stories are gathered for easy access, along with a hitherto-unpublished novella, The Traveller. In his introduction, Neville notes that it is 

a response to the messages I've received over the years asking what happened to Jack Lennon and his daughter, Ellen, after the events of The Final Silence. Although I've always known exactly where Jack wound up—the coastal village of Cushenden, working as a security guard—I'd put off writing about it for several years This collection  offered the opportunity to finally put that right, as well as tie up several loose ends, including the eponymous villain coming back to take his revenge.

Each of the dozen shorter tales offers insight into other characters, suspense and delight in the reading, and a sideways squint into the author's diverse interests. "The Last Dance," following up on the life of Gerry Fegan from The Ghosts of Belfast, is a great gift to Neville's regular readers.

If you want to give friends an unexpected and highly memorable trick-or-treat, get a couple of extra copies of this collection. Make sure to ink your name into your own copy, so it won't walk away lightly. It will be, indeed, haunted.

[Released this week from Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press, with a fascinating foreword by the remarkable John Connolly.]

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

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Compelling Debut Mystery from Brian Selfon, THE NIGHTWORKERS, Set in Brooklyn

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Like the strongest authors in this genre, Selfon bares the effects of death on each of us. His dialogue is compelling, his plot actions and his images of Brooklyn’s underworld unforgettable.”

Crime fiction from the point of view of the criminal comes in varieties dark and deadly, or light and humorous. Stuart Neville uses Ireland’s “Troubles” for the dark version; Donald Westlake gave us lots of the “caper” kind.

Brian Selfon, in his debut The Nightworkers, steps into the lives of a family of Brooklyn money launderers and marks out new and risky terrain in varieties of love, affection, and loyalty. Consider this a working-class version of one little pocket of The Godfather.  Shecky Keenan, a bag man for the local prostitution and sex trafficking rings, has tenderly crafted a family that depends on him, and for whom he will do almost anything – get up early to make their special breakfast treats, for instance – while at the same time, almost innocently, involving them in his business affairs. Here’s his point of view:

“Family. Shecky Keenan once thought he’d never have one. But on the day before Emil’s murder, he walks into his home, wiping sweat from his face, and here they are, seated in his dining room. The cousins are both orphans, and though everyone in this room is mixed race, Henry and Shecky look white, and Kerasha, black. For Shecky this proved a point. The three of them are the family he glued together, and Shecky wouldn’t want any other.”

But good intentions aren’t enough to protect them, considering the vicious crime network depending on their services. And that part about Emil’s murder – that’s the death of a runner that Henry recruited, a starving artist who’ll do Henry’s errands in order to pay rent but who is an innocent with few self-preservation skills other than the ones Henry specifically teaches him.

At least, that’s what Henry believes, and it’s why he blames himself for Emil’s murder and digs into how and why it happened. In some ways it’s because Henry fell for Emil, a passionate love for the life that the artist represented. And then, because life is that way, Henry immediately brought Emil into the “night work” of the book’s title.

“Emil is tall and long-limbed, like Henry, but without the muscle, and his rounding stomach suggests a habit of late-night pizzas. He’s handsome, with his bold nose and his bedroom smile, but what catches Henry’s attention now are the paint stains. The yellow on the hands, the purple on his pants—this is a worker. A tickle in Henry tells him this is something he can use.” 

In a series of time jumps, back and forward, and insight from others, including Zera, a detective with very personal reasons for trying to pry open the trafficking rings through watching the money, Selfon deals from a mixed and powerful deck of intimacy and loyalty. The Nightworkers wipes off the stage makeup of these crime figures and reveals their humanity, their longings for care—giving it and receiving it.

What Henry can’t know is that every step he takes toward discovering how Emil died, and why, is a step that may jeopardize his own family. Only Shecky knows the truths. And Kerasha, who sees herself as a spider, understands the web and how Henry’s efforts are causing all the strands to tremble.

Like the strongest authors in this genre, Selfon bares the effects of death on each of us. His dialogue is compelling, his plot actions and his images of Brooklyn’s underworld unforgettable. Ditch the title, which is a poor fit for the broad expanse of this stirring crime novel. And clear the calendar. A few chapters in, there’s no chance of putting this book down until the highly satisfying yet unexpected finale.

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

Method Acting? Or Method Murder?? THE SICILIAN METHOD from Andrea Camilleri

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

For Salvo Montalbano, the whole episode is as dramatic as a film. But it will get much more unreal when he tracks down a victim at last, the outrageous director Carmelo Catalanotti.

Although Andrea Camilleri died in 2019 at age 93, his biting yet entertaining police procedurals are still making their way, via translation, to America. The Sicilian Method is a clever title, suggesting at first a crime methodology, but better understood as a phrase from acting. Scattered across bedrooms and stages of the imagined town of Vigàta, Sicily, the crimes that Inspector Montalbano investigates here are also very clever, clearly the product of a twisted mind involved with stagecraft and performance.


Count on Camilleri for frequent bursts of satire, like twists of lemon juice, as the story spins forward: Mimi Augello, also a police detective, wakes Inspector Salvo Montalbano in the middle of the night, panicking and desperate. Montalbano’s annoyed enough to make things tough on his colleague, until he sees Mimi’s face and realizes something serious must have happened. Mimi begins to dump the tale of woe:


“ ‘I wanted to tell you …’ he began, but stopped, only then noticing that the inspector was naked.


And Montalbano, too, realized only then, and so he dashed into his bedroom and grabbed a pair of jeans.


As he was putting them on, he wondered whether it might be best to put on an undershirt as well, but decided that Mimi wasn’t worth it.”


It turns out that Mimi, escaping down some balconies from a lover’s tryst interrupted by a returning husband, has stumbled across a murder—and, unthinkingly, left evidence of his own visit there. For Salvo Montalbano, the whole episode is as dramatic as a film. But it will get much more unreal when he tracks down a victim at last, the outrageous director Carmelo Catalanotti.


 Catalanotti’s particularly outrageous aspect is what he pushes his performers through: He pries into their psychological wounds, then forces them back into situations that injure and humiliate them in the same way. His excuse: He’s the director, and he’s making powerful actors out of this. But of course, what he’s really making is maddened and bitter enemies, and before long, Inspector Montalbano has a wide set of possible suspects, some ridiculous means and opportunities, and a personal conflict of interest in a budding romance with the new head of forensics.


Anyone who’s subjected themselves to drama school at any level—or even to ordinary high school—will grasp the real level of malice and damage produced by the far-too-clever director. So it’s a relief to tag along with the mundane and sometimes stumbling efforts of police procedure, as Montalbano marvels at his discoveries and tries to find the right combination of person and scene to explain both the original murder and a second one.


Stephen Sartarelli’s translation allows Camilleri’s deft humor to come through vividly; his attempts to portray lower classes by giving them Cockney-style slang are less successful but tolerable for the sake of enjoying this lively crime novel.


There’s no need to read the other 25 Inspector Montalbano books before The Sicilian Method, but this enjoyable romp may send readers scurrying for them afterward, giving birth to a new generation of collectors of Camilleri’s dark humor and neatly twisted plots, along with the persistence of an inspector who can’t ever let himself be defeated by crime.

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

Monday, October 05, 2020

How Peter Lovesey Launched His Crime Career: 50th Anniversary of WOBBLE TO DEATH

Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press, releases on October 6 a remarkable new volume for Peter Lovesey's British police procedural series: a 50th anniversary collector's edition of WOBBLE TO DEATH, Lovesey's first crime novel, first published, obviously, in 1970.

The book introduces, eventually, the investigators Sergeant Cribb ("tall, spare in frame, too spry in his movements ever to put on much weight") and Constable Thackeray ("his assistant, a burly, middle-aged man with a fine grey beard"). But they appear almost halfway through the book. Instead of opening as a police procedural, the novel beings with the "Wobble" itself, a competitive British walking race drawing heavy betting in 1879, and held indoors in the Agricultural Hall. The levels of class antagonism as well as competitiveness and real need for the "purse" of prize money are deftly sketched out, and if the environment stinks of the farm animals who'd been there earlier in the month, it also presses a reek of nastiness and aggression among the racers.

Death, of course, is what brings in the constables. And there must be a solution to the case before the race ends at the end of the week, when all the participants—the obvious suspects—will depart.

This entertaining and snugly twisted crime investigation came as almost an accident in the author's life. His explanation, spilled at the end of the new edition, makes lively reading, too -- the book began as an entry for a "best first crime novel" competition held by Macmillan in London.

The thousand pounds [prize] amounted to more than my annual salary. My wife, Jax, pointed out that I'd already written one book already—a history of distance running—so why not another? And why not use my research into the sport to create a setting that would be wholly original? I couldn't at first see how running and crime could mix. Then I recalled the brutal "go-as-you-please" contests that had drawn huge crowed to the Agricultural Hall, Islington, in the late nineteenth century. The hardy competitors struggled around a small track for six days and the best of the survivors managed over 600 miles. Ideas took root and I decided to enter.

The deadline was only five months away.

There are many more delights in the author's note, including the legendary figures who reviewed his first book and his installation in the Detection Club, presided over by Agatha Christie. 

So this is a must-read for lovers of British crime, and of well-plotted, entertaining mysteries in general. After reading a very good story, you get dessert in the form of a highly intriguing first-person narrative. Well done, Soho Crime and Mr. Lovesey!

The release date is perfect also for holiday shopping -- get two copies, because you won't want to give yours away.

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

Cryptocurrency, Face Blindness, and Family: Siri Mitchell's Crime Novel EVERYWHERE TO HIDE

She's doing what she has to do to survive: Whitney Garrison's made it through law school, as well as her mother's death and the stress of student loans piling up, and her two jobs—one in a coffee shop, the other as a tutor to prep people for high-stakes testing—are paying her way near the DC area while she waits for her own high-stakes test into a legal career and a job that can cover her debts.

Meanwhile, her abusive ex-boyfriend living in DC continues to terrorize her, if only as traumatic memories, she's lying to her dad about how well she's holding together, and the final straw lands: She witnesses a murder outside the coffee shop where she works.

Now Whitney's a target for the murderer, who needs to kill any witnesses. But what the shooter doesn't know, and what the detective on the case has a hard time understanding, is that Whitney's not able to see faces at all. She suffers from a condition called "face blindness" and even in the coffee shop, she can only guess at which of her co-workers is standing next to her, or whether a customer is a repeat one or a newcomer.

And in this condition, the killer could walk up to her and order a soy latte, and she'd have no idea that a threat to her life had arrived.

EVERYWHERE TO HIDE spins this terrifying situation into a compelling thriller, as the detective on the case begins to bond with Whitney, while the force of threat around her escalates. Even Detective Baroni has doubts about her safety, as it appears that banking secrets among her friends may have erupted in the murder.

My scalp began to tingle. It all felt too much like my last weeks in DC. I didn't want to have to look behind every corner again, didn't want to have to wonder if someone was out there somewhere, waiting for me. I thought I'd left all of that behind. It felt like a vise was tightening around my lungs as I pointed out Mrs. Harper's house.

"Am I in danger?"

"I wouldn't have thought it, but your friend's message is making me wonder. If I knew what it was he wanted to talk to you about, then I might know for certain. But I would say that until we figure this out, you're safer if you stay in crowds. With groups of people. .... I'm just trying to let you know how serious this is. Rather, how serious it might be."

Turns out it's way more serious than even the detective could have guessed, and the multiplying threats and attacks on her soon tumble Whitney into homelessness, threaten her jobs, and put her life on the line.

Author Siri Mitchell provides an end note about the cryptocurrency issue that turns out to be the crime's focus, and about face blindness, formally known as prosopagnosia. Most importantly, she offers a compelling picture of how vulnerable each of us is, and how we find and nurture our support systems—while at the same time presenting a page-turner of steadily rising tension. 

Looking for a fast, intriguing crime novel? This is a good choice. It's Mitchell's second work of contemporary suspense, but she's had plenty of seasoning in earlier novels that pressed the romance side and is clearly an experienced storyteller, ready to spin the plot and the stakes toward a memorable conclusion. 

[The publisher is Thomas Nelson, and the release date is October 6.]

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

Friday, September 25, 2020

Newest Caribbean Mystery from Teresa Dovalpage, DEATH OF A TELENOVELA STAR

Cuban-born Teresa Dovalpage's third mystery with Soho Crime/Soho Press was published over the summer; a copy reached me a few weeks ago and turned out to be the perfect light dessert for the season!

DEATH OF A TELENOVELA STAR opens with Marlene Martínez—a former Havana detective with a role in one of Dovalpage's earlier mysteries—finally taking some time off. Her brush with crime in Cuba helped motivate her to move to Miami, Florida, where she owns her own bakery. She loves it! But still, it's time to give her niece Sarita a significant quinceañera gift, and what she's opted for is an aunt-and-niece cruise to Mexico and the Caribbean. When a Cuban telenovela (soap opera) star turns out to be a fellow passenger, hunky and appealing, family bonding takes second place to social media posting for Sarita.

This is a compact, quick-paced novella with some fortune telling, a murder, and small revelations about Marlene along the way. "Men cause more trouble than they are worth," the retired detective tells herself, an easy enough position to take about the overly adored TV star -- but not as realistic when the cruise chef starts to pay some serious attention to Marlene's baking background and tastes in food.

All in all, a light-hearted, cleverly put together mystery, enjoyable and gently revelatory—treat yourself to a copy, and share it with a "bestie" so you can smile about it together.

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

Cajun Country Mystery from Ellen Byron, MURDER IN THE BAYOU BONEYARD


[Originally at New York Journal of Books]

“If you enjoy timing your books to the seasons, Byron’s Halloween-themed Cajun mystery is a must-read for this time of year, and an enjoyable spin through the kind of sensible, clue-laden plotting that makes a good mystery—along with some end-of-book surprises for a bold finale.”

The new “Cajun Country Mystery” from Ellen Byron demonstrates that Maggie Crozat, owner of a historic bed-and-breakfast inn, can think clearly under pressure, make smart choices, and survive life-threatening guests—as well as a family that threatens to make her property and family business worthless.

Murder in the Bayou Boneyard comes with all the trappings of a classic “cozy” yet the well-plotted underpinnings of a traditional “amateur sleuth” mystery. Byron’s plotting is smooth, with well-turned dialogue and exploration. Maggie is not a fan of Halloween, but when her Cajun Country region feels pinched by an expanding online B&B app, she pulls the neighboring inns together for a month of spooky pleasures, including a theater performance in a graveyard. Who could blame her when a costumed “rougarou” (the local werewolf/vampire figure) runs onto the stage and falls dead?

Yet the investigators from the next town over manage to horn in on the action, focusing on Maggie as their prime suspect. It’s because the victim is a woman who’s already taken away Maggie’s art studio, in a property dispute gone awry. And the next death in the group intensifies the pressure on Maggie.

Her fiancé is a local police officer, and while that gives Maggie some clout and some avenues for information, it only feeds the competition from the neighboring police force. Between trying to keep guests from being scared away, and trying to keep them alive and entertained, Maggie’s got more than her hands full. And the local newspaper makes things worse:

A headline screamed, ‘Masseuse Death Ruled a Homicide.’ But it was the subtitle that made Maggie feel ill.

‘Suspects Include Local Family.’

‘If I ever do murder someone, it’s going to be Little Earlie [the reporter],’ Maggie fumed to Bo through her Bluetooth as she drove home. ‘Can’t I sue him for libel or something?’

‘I wish you could, except …’

‘It’s not libelous because it’s true.’ Bo’s silence confirmed this. ‘I guess it does look bad, with us firing Susannah and the whole property line thing.’

As Maggie turns sleuth to save her family’s inn, her mother and grandmother keep the good food rolling, and seasoned “cozy” readers will expect and be tickled by the recipes at the back of the book. Most satisfying in Ellen Byron’s tasty Cajun Country mystery, though, are Maggie’s investigative courage and her quick assessments of motive, means, and opportunity, including an easy local source of strychnine (who knew?).

If you enjoy timing your books to the seasons, Byron’s Halloween-themed Cajun mystery is a must-read for this time of year, and an enjoyable spin through the kind of sensible, clue-laden plotting that makes a good mystery—along with some end-of-book surprises for a bold finale.

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

Saturday, September 19, 2020

New Denise Mina Lifts Scottish (Glasgow) Noir to New Power: THE LESS DEAD

 [Originally published in New York Journal of Books]

“Mina’s touch with the dark, gritty, and disturbing is expert, and this book is a persuasive and frightening page-turner.”

Denise Mina has written two crime fiction series set in Glasgow, Scotland, establishing memorable investigators. The Less Dead is a stand-alone, also set in Glasgow, and circles around one bizarre situation: Dr. Margo Dunlop is pregnant, so she finally wants to know something about her own unknown mother. To her astonishment, as she tackles hoeing out the house where she’d grown up, raised by a loving adoptive mother, she finds a stash of letters addressed to her and never delivered. Letters from her birth mother’s sister, that is, Margo’s aunt, Nikki.

The first meeting with Nikki takes place at an agency that facilitates such reconnection. It’s an ordinary place, with an ordinary enough counselor, a bit over the top in her staged sympathy for Margo, but otherwise tame enough. Once Nikki walks in the door, though, all ordinary moments vanish from Margo’s life in a terrifying sweep of “the past isn’t even past.”

It turns out Margo’s mother was a murder victim, probably caught up in swapping sex for drugs at the time. And all these years, her aunt Nikki—sister of the murder victim, Susan—has been pleading (those undelivered letters, remember?) for Margo to help track down the murderer and avenge the murder at last.

Not so fast. An educated professional, Margo has no intention of being dragged into some crackpot scheme by the obviously eccentric and low-class Nikki. Still, now that she knows a little, she can’t resist looking up more, and even finds a crime photo online:

Margo has dissected corpses. She has removed and weighed livers and lungs. She isn’t shocked by the sight of death or injury but she isn’t ready for Susan’s vulnerability and how young she is. She’s small for nineteen, childlike, and dead and dumped … No one was punished for this. They did this to a young woman and they’re still out there, walking around, eating biscuits, drinking tea. having Christmases. She feels the injustice of it deep in her gut, the way Nikki must have for decades, a cross between fear and nausea. It’s wrong.

It’s not surprising that Margo, despite her revulsion, begins to think she ought to do something. But in a terrifying turn of the tables, she finds that opening the door to look into her past has made her the object of someone else’s threats and hatred. Is it an unrelated creep of some sort? Or does it have something directly to do with the pervert who killed her mother?

Mina’s touch with the dark, gritty, and disturbing is expert, and this book is a persuasive and frightening page-turner. Take the tender parts when they come, as Margo must: realizations of friendships, alliances across class lines despite not wanting them, friendships among women strong enough to fight off the men on hand, whether they are uselessly well-meaning or frighteningly violent.

There’s nothing pretty about reading The Less Dead. And it’s the slowly growing desperation that Margo finally embraces, for some kind of justice for her mother and for her own safety, that pulls the book forward. Still, Mina continues to offer the distaff side of the looking-glass world that began with the classic Glasgow noir of the late William McIlvanney: Crime always involves women, whether as victims, partners, or even perpetrators. In Mina’s capable hands, they raise their voices and speak out. At last.

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

Monday, August 31, 2020

Billy Boyle World War II Mystery #15, THE RED HORSE, from James R. Benn

How long can a mystery series about six years of warfare last? How complicated can the plots become, when we all "know the ending" -- our side won?

The answer that James R. Benn makes me think of is, how many people have complicated stories of the war? (Hint: Many thousands.) Well then, that's how many mysteries there may be room for along the way.

THE RED HORSE takes two enthralling facets of the British side of the war -- the use of an asylum as a recovery center for people whose information and importance shouldn't be risked in ordinary medical care, and the espionage teams playing back and forth between the Allies and the Axis -- to spin a risky and highly suspenseful tale of detection that our investigator, Captain Billy Boyle, feels compelled to sort out. Not only is the conduct of the war at stake, but so are his friends. And in every James Benn mystery, those friendships forged in mutual risk are the vital threads of the action.

In the preceding Billy Boyle mystery, Boyle raced around occupied Paris confronting crime and trying to liberate his beloved Diana. Reaching the end of When Hell Struck Twelve didn't resolve all of Boyle's issues, and the new book opens with his struggles to get hold of himself again, as he's locked away in an asylum where doctors may be trying to wipe out his memories, as he sees it: He's witnessing extensive forces of guards, and terrifying maneuvers around him. On the way to an appointment with the psychologist in charge, he admits to himself that he's "scared as hell." And against his own inner rules, he admits out loud:

"Everything's wrong. Shattered. I don't know how to get back. It feels like it's going to be like this forever."

"When you were brought here, you were severely exhausted, in a state of profound confusion," Robinson said. "It takes a while to come back from that. You were physically and emotionally spent. Add to that the effects of the drugs you'd taken, and anyone would have a hard time."

"It was only a few pep pills, Doc, come on."

"You continue to minimize the seriousness of the drugs you took. It was methamphetamine, and from what you said, you took enough to win the Kentucky Derby without a horse. Just because the Germans gave them to their troops doesn't mean they're safe. We're talking about Nazis, remember."

All of Billy's instincts for self-preservation argue against letting the doctor try the rest cure suggested, a medically induced sleep for some 40 hours, to reset his mind. But there are two vitally important things Billy needs to do: find a way to help his very close friend Kaz recover from a heart ailment, and resume the effort to rescue his beloved. When it looks like he can't do those without taking the cure, he yields—and for a while, even the reader won't know whether he's made the right choice.

As it turns out, some things go well from that cure. But not everything he's "witnesssed" while his mind was malfunctioning was a delusion: He's seen a death that looks increasingly like murder, and even for the sake of helping his friends, Billy can't let go of his hunt for the criminal and justice:

So far, there was nothing anyone had said about [the victim] Holland that hinted at a motive. Or even a relationship with a single person at Saint Albans.

Except for Doc Robinson, and he wasn't talking. From what I'd learned, Holland was likely to have been as uncommunicative with him in his sessions as he was the rest of the time. Maybe the files would tell the real story.

Maybe not. After all, the SOE and the OSS were not known for their fidelity to the truth.

Of course, Billy recognizes the kinds of trade-offs being made around him. And he's honest about his own limitations: "In a place so far down in my heart and soul that I might never find my way back from it, I could sacrifice hundreds of people, maybe thousands, to get Diana back ... they could all vanish in a flash if it would bring Diana safely home from Ravensbrück."

Fortunately, he won't have to go that far. But he will have to convince his superiors that a crime (or more than one) has been committed, that he's recovered enough to be the investigator, and that he's willing to put himself into the hands of the asylum staff again, to get to the truth.

James R. Benn is in no hurry to "finish" Billy Boyle's war; there are many marvelous quirks and twists of real history for him to braid into the investigative adventures that Boyle undertakes on behalf, in the long run, of his "uncle" General Eisenhower and staff, and the Allies. In the process, readers get more than the breath-taking risks and close-shave escapes of Captain Boyle and his friends: They get to witness a brash young American growing up in the theater of war, and see the groundwork that will in turn, after the work of many more men and women, lay a basis for a lasting peace.

Benn's writing is well polished, paced with suspense and surprises, and historically trustworthy. As he lays out the war, on multiple fronts, he also lays out the strength of friendship and loyalty. His books are a smooth blend of both facets, and worth every minute of exhilarating reading. You won't need to devour the other Billy Boyle titles before this one, but give yourself the great pleasure of catching up with them afterward. 

Publication date is September 1, from Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press.

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

THE DEADLY HOURS: Four Authors, Four Historical Eras, One Cursed Watch ...

And multiple deaths and lovers.

Although THE DEADLY HOURS (Sept. 1 release) is labeled "An Anthology," it's actually much more exciting -- it's a chained set of four novellas that reach from 1733 to 1944, bringing a set of English mystery tales into exhilarating conjunction. Each is written by a different author; all four are well known for their historical and romantic suspense. A true page-turner, crammed with risk, suspense, and satisfying investigations, it showcases Susanna Kearsley, C. S. Harris, Anna Lee Huber, and Christine Trent.

Hear this: It begins with lovemaking, piracy, espionage on behalf of the Scottish succession, and a curse placed on an elegant watch, for which the gold was stolen from a religious group in the New World.

That should be enough for a reader to decide, really. If you want a bit more, know that Hugh McPherson in 1733 considers that his wife Mary, whose love he has earned, is his angel: "She'd brought him back to the light." Now a team, the couple collides in Portofino with a dangerous Spanish captain, an assassin, royalty, and, indeed, the dangerous object that carries its own name, for the mermaid etched upon it: La Sirène. By the time Kearsley completes her tale, "Weapon of Choice," there's no choice -- one must continue to find out more.

Yet each succeeding novella in this set of four is enchantingly different. Anna Lee Huber presents "A Lady Darby Novella" in her contribution, "In a Fevered Hour." The timeline has jumped to 1831, and again we have a wife and husband who adore each other and collaborate in their intelligence and daring. Kiera and Sebastian Gage find themselves collaborating with a well-known vicious criminal whose need for their help involves the fate of all Edinburgh. For "A Pocketful of Death," Christine Trent enables Violet Harper, a highly unusual undertaker, to cross paths with the watch that has drawn a trail of death and betrayal through the other novellas, and now in 1870 seems to evoke coincidental deaths in Violet's neighborhood. "Siren's Call," from C. S. Harris, opens in 1944 and soon reaches this ominous point: 

Jude glanced over at him. "Hitler does have a well-known interest in occult objects."

"True. But it seems far-fetched to me."

"The idea of an unstable buffoon like Hitler managing to seize power in the first place is far-fetched," said Jude, setting the shadow box aside. "Yet it happened."

To find a conclusion to the devastation caused by the accursed timepiece, Rachel Townsend-Smythe will have to sort out both espionage and family loyalties, to save the people she cares about.

Praised on the cover by no less than Anne Perry, THE DEADLY HOURS is a marvelous four-course meal of lively and intriguing writing, a great way to sample the work of these four authors, and a true gift to readers from the Poisoned Pen Press imprint of Sourcebooks. Tuck it into your travel bag or sweep the bedside table clear and let this one launch your fresh season of exploration.

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


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

New Key West Food Food Critic Mystery from Lucy Burdette, THE KEY LIME CRIME (Yummy!)

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“This is a perfect mystery for summer beach reading—or for motivating yourself to plan a Key West vacation, as long as you can stay clear of the business end of a chef’s knife or heavy-duty rolling pin.”

Lucy Burdette’s Key West Food Critic Mysteries feature Hayley Snow, a “food critic and frantic foodie fanatic,” and The Key Lime Crime is the tenth in the series: packed with cuisine-related arguments, Key West traditions and festivals, the tang of romance, and always a well-motivated criminal willing to ignore friendship for the sake of, say, money or revenge. Although the books are presented as recipe cozies, they are solid traditional mysteries underneath the delicious details.

This time, Hayley’s still a newlywed. She’s finally married the hunky police officer she’s longed for, Nathan Bransford, and they’ve worked out, more or less, how far out of her food critic role she’ll reach when motivated to pry into a crime. Now it’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s, so Key West is packed with vacationers eager for a good time. For Hayley in her journalist role, that means covering a key lime pie competition arranged by one of the noted chefs on the island.

Ask anyone familiar with Key West and they’ll assure you that there seem to be unlimited variations on the recipe for key lime pie. There’s the controversy over meringue or whipped cream, the preference for pastry crust or tart crust or a graham cracker version, and Burdette’s culinary curiosity adds even more ways to make the dessert rich and zesty.

Of course, when murder happens, it’s related to the pie competition. Hayley certainly knows better than to get involved with investigating this. But an unexpected factor has entered her life: Her mother-in-law, who couldn’t make it to the wedding (because she was prepared to hate Hayley?), arrives with hardly any notice, and instead of staying placidly at home with Hayley’s own folks, Mrs. Bransford hops into Hayley’s scooter with her and in every way possible partners up on sleuthing into the bakers and their confections. Hayley’s astonished when this leads to signing up for a pastry course for the two of them:

“’I didn’t know you were interested in baking,’ I said, once we were back on the sidewalk.

Mrs. Bransford laughed. ‘Not at all. But I didn’t believe for a moment that she did not know Claudette. Her shop is only one block from the French place. She admitted she knew the woman wasn’t Parisian, and I suspect there was lots more she could say. I figured we’d hear more over an hour while keeping our hands busy in the class. She struck me as the kind of woman who was bursting to gossip if given the right opportunity.’

I stared at her, impressed. That was exactly what I was thinking.”

While Hayley and her mother-in-law chase motive, means, and opportunity, of course, they run afoul of the actual murderer(s), and there’s a highly satisfying and kitchen-related scene of danger and disaster. At stake the entire time, and adding to the suspense, is the issue of whether Hayley will be accepted by Mrs. Bransford. When she finally figures out her mother-in-law’s own motivations, she discovers multiple secrets that need airing, and realizes she’s still a newbie in getting to know her spouse.

Trust Burdette to pack the back of the book with tasty recipes, too, from hors d’oeuvres to a key lime parfait. This is a perfect mystery for summer beach reading—or for motivating yourself to plan a Key West vacation, as long as you can stay clear of the business end of a chef’s knife or heavy-duty rolling pin.

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

Curl Up with a Cozy (Mystery): MUMS AND MAYHEM, Amanda Flower

[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Mums and Mayhem from Amanda Flower is light reading as mysteries go, and lacks vibrancy in the romantic strand so typical of this subgenre of ‘cozy’ mysteries, but it embraces a charming part of the world, in eastern Scotland near the coast, and spins a sweet tale in the process.”

Fiona Knox owns a florist shop in the small quaint Scottish village of Bellewick. And, incidentally, a magical garden created on the former estate of Duncreigan, walled and vibrant, with its own elderly gardener. In two previous books in Amanda Flower’s Magical Garden Mystery series, Fiona’s learned that her inherited role as “Keeper” of what was once her uncle’s place connects her somehow to a mystical stone in the garden, as well as to its vibrancy and beauty.

So when her nightmare this time of seeing the garden shrivel and die turns out to be a vision of its actual condition, she’s knows she’s immediately responsible for its healing. Which, actually, she has no idea how to accomplish.

Making her less able than usual to concentrate on both her garden and her business is the arrival of her American farmer parents, presumably to summon her “home” along with her sister Isla, who’s followed her to Scotland and plunged into a romance with a jobless local. Most distracting of all is the music festival the town’s about to host, a return-home performance by a noted Scottish fiddler with his backup musicians. And, of course, there’s a romantic thread, since Fiona’s been developing a romance with Chief Inspector Neil Craig of the County Aberdeen police.

That’s a fortunate connection to have when Fiona discovers a musician murdered and learns her father, who’d once lived in this very village, was the last person known to see the victim alive. Not only will he not share details of why he went to see the musician, but he’s not talking about a recently revealed family secret, either: that he’s not Fiona’s biological parent. Her genetic father was “Uncle Ian,” the man who’s left her the garden.

Skeptics will be relieved to know that Fiona’s investigation of the crime has no major magical influences to it—the garden is definitely a background stress—so her focus is entirely on clearing her father of any possible role in the murder. Of course, as happens often with a series like this, Fiona’s presence in town has already coincided with death:

“’It’s hard to believe there’s been another killing in Bellewick,’ one of the constables said. ‘It’s almost like this place is cursed.’ …

‘Go,’ Craig said, and his voice left no room for speculation. He wanted the scene secured and now. The constables went off to do what he asked.

He glanced at me. ‘I’m going to go in the bus. Are you all right to wait here?’ He studied my face for even the slightest hint of a breakdown.

I straightened my shoulders. ‘I’ll be fine. Do what you have to do.’

He nodded and entered the tour bus.”

 Though Fiona is not a very adept sleuth herself, she’s plucky, and her motivation pushes her through, and by the time the pieces come together, she also knows the mysteries that her own family has hidden for so long. Mums and Mayhem is light reading as mysteries go, and lacks vibrancy in the romantic strand so typical of this subgenre of “cozy” mysteries, but it embraces a charming part of the world, in eastern Scotland near the coast, and spins a sweet tale in the process.

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

Sunday, August 16, 2020

High-Suspense Maine Mystery from Jenny Milchman, THE SECOND MOTHER

The virus pandemic continues to sweep publication dates with it, so THE SECOND MOTHER, the chilling new thriller from Jenny Milchman, hits the shelves -- virtual and real -- on August 18. Thanks to Sourcebooks, Milchman is on a roll again (for her up-down-up story, see her website). With a dark, spooky cover (that bears little resemblance to the Maine island where the action takes place), the book offers a warning of terror to come, right from the start.

Julie Weathers, desperately mourning her baby daughter Hedley who died, and mostly unsupported by her increasingly distant husband, makes a leap of desperation, out of the community where she's been teaching, Wedeskyull, New York (in the Catskills). Grabbing an online ad for a job for a K-8 teacher on a remote island off the Maine coast, she applies and, to her own surprise and maybe even new pleasure, snags the position. Her large and friendly dog at her side, she packs for colder weather and prepares to ride across an almost wintry ocean, to meet her new administrators and the children she hopes will restore some purpose to her life.

She's leaving behind her uncle Vern, who unexpectedly stops in to caution her:

"I know something about escape," he said. "It don't always work out like you want it to."

Julie looked at him over the rim of her still-full cup. "What do you mean?"

"I'm sure you've heard the saying," Vern replied. "Wherever you go, there you are. Are you looking to get away from Wedeskyull—or what you think happened here?"

"It did happen here," Julie said. The coffee sizzled in her stomach, and she set her cup on the table with a thwack. "I'm looking to get away from the memories I relive every time I do the same thing in the same place or in the same way that I did it with Hedley." ...

"What happened to your little girl ain't nothing like what I did," Vern said. "You suffered a tragedy nobody could've done anything about. The finest policing, all the integrity in the world, would've had no effect on what happened to Hedley."

Still, Julie knows she needs to leave. But what is she jumping into? Warned that she'll have little ability to communicate with people off the island, or even to leave it from time to time, she can't stop her forward motion and the boat ride she's committed to.

Farther and farther away, smaller and smaller, until their last connection to land was gone, as invisible as if it had never existed at all.

It was the loneliest feeling Julie had experienced in a long time. Knee-buckling, nearly bowling her over, except that of course she'd gone through far worse. She suddenly missed her daughter anew, felt every vacancy Hedley had left, and to which Julie had just added immeasurably by abandoning the last places the baby had inhabited. Stinging spray settled on Julie's face, convincing her that she had made the worst mistake since the day her daughter had been lost. And there was not one thing she could do about it now.

Almost immediately, it's clear the island and its school system are run with an iron and perhaps frightening hand, by a family that's got no boundaries to keep it out of Julie's life and classroom. Her efforts to get to know, teach, and bring healing to her students are rebuffed by a grandmother figure who definitely frightens people, and who's clearly determined to have Julie under her thumb. Risk, threats, and betrayal line up; kids may be the ones most deeply wounded; and even the small return to life of Julie's ability to love another person could be crushed.

From the first page, this thriller speaks to both the heart and the urge for self-protection. Suspense mounts steadily, both human and oceanic, and the storms roll in.

Yet Milchman's loyal readers already know she'll find a way to return both choice and affection to Julie —if the circumstances don't either cause her death, or banish her from the people she's coming to love.

First time reading a book by this author? Lucky you: There are four other titles already in print, and another racing toward publication with Sourcebooks. Milchman has mastered a rare art, merging suspense with a badly needed second chance at life, and lifts up the crime fiction genre to new heights in the process.

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Love, War, and Espionage, in THE DOCTOR OF ALEPPO from Dan Mayland

Dan Mayland's Mark Sava "spy novels" gave him a solid platform of plot-centered espionage fiction to write from. But his 2020 novel, released August 11, takes him well beyond expected forms, into a tale of a Syrian doctor and an American woman whose commitments to justice turn their lives inside out.

Dr. Samir Hasan, an orthopedic surgeon in Aleppo, Syria, already walks the ragged edge of political danger: He has family members who oppose the ruler of the nation, Bashar al-Assad, and in 2012, in the third phase of Syria's civil war, to take care of his relatives is treason. But how can he refuse? Even so, the hours he spends beyond his hospital work, patching up injured protesters, puts his wife and children into a more direct jeopardy, since he's no longer home for enough hours to protect them from the erupting conflict. Warriors for Allah, the soldiers begin to interfere with the doctor's son ... and then, inevitably, his wife.

Crossing paths with this doctor is an American woman, Hannah Johnson, who needs his care for her wounded Swedish lover. Hannah's working with humanitarian relief, ferrying medications and other hospital supplies to the beleaguered occupants of the city. A further accident, at the hospital, places Dr. Hasan—Sami—and the American woman into jeopardy as the son of a secret police official unexpectedly dies in the care of this hard-hit hospital.

Neither can continue as they have been. For Sami, the change is most terrible: To gain protection for his family, he seeks help through his dangerously rebellious sister-in-law:

"Your protester friends—yes, I know you are one of them—some of them have connections to the Free Syrian Army, I assume?"

"I do not need to hear your accusations now, Sami."

"I am not accusing you. I ask because I need your help."

"What help?"

"I need for you to take a message to the Free Syrian Army—to tell them that I am willing to work for them. Heal their wounded and train their medics. But in exchange, Beit Qarah [his home] and my family will be protected."

For Hannah, betrayal reaches her personally: The boyfriend she assisted not only leaves the country without her, but turns out to have a "regular" girlfriend at home, one he's lined up to marry. She feels like a fool. But that doesn't stop her commitment to making the runs with humanitarian aid, even though she keeps fooling herself into thinking she'll stop at some point.

The twists of war reconnect her to Dr. Samir Hasan in new ways, circling more around his children and their need for protection than any other reasoning. But Hannah has crossed the line into a culture far different from what she understands, and her efforts to again try to save individuals may cost her far more than she expects to pay. Because the secret police officer has linked her with the doctor who failed to save his son—who perhaps actually killed his son—and Rahim has never stopped searching:

At times there had been leads. In January she had been seen passing through a checkpoint in Bustan al-Qasr, in May through a checkpoint in Sheik Saeed. But her schedule was seemingly random, and when she had been observed, the people doing the observing had been unable to pursue her without exposing themselves as regime spies.

Until yesterday.

This is an ambitious book spanning the years from 2012 to 2016. It offers readers an entry into both a period of history and a set of intersecting cultures, by playing out the tension within the middle and upper classes in Lebanon, where history's challenges linger, and art and literature are as important as religion, or more so. In this season after an epic explosion in Beirut, in neighboring Lebanon, followed by a change of government there, THE DOCTOR OF ALEPPO offers an intriguing and page-turning route into understanding more of this region's roots in terror, passion, and the value of ordinary human loyalties. 

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