Sunday, June 21, 2020

Murder in the Hamptons: Carrie Doyle's Series Goes Mass Market This Summer

Good news: Carrie Doyle's mystery series set in the Hamptons (at the far end of New York's Long Island) has hit the reprint jackpot and is being reissued this summer by Poisoned Pen Press, now a mystery imprint of Sourcebooks. Bad news: Someone put a really silly cover onto the reprint of DEATH ON WINDMILL WAY (the first of the series). Good news: We all know how to ignore a cover -- and in this case, there's a good mystery inside the book. Bad news: The title sounds like this is set in either a Dutch holiday resort, or a suburb that's named the roads in its developments using too large a committee. Good news: This is actually an innkeeper mystery with a lot of pizzazz.

DEATH ON WINDMILL WAY opens with a sneaky prologue that ensures reader awareness of a malicious murderer causing a death at the inn. Then it leaps to the point of view, maintained for the rest of the books, of innkeeper Antonia Bingham. New to inn ownership and to the conundrum of Hamptons life -- the feel of a village among the year-rounders, but also acute dependence on the multimillionaires owning property in the beach-based Nirvana, and on heedless tourists -- Antonia has a lot to master: meal and snack prep that lives up to the high-end expectations of the resort area (she's a "foodie" so that's natural to her), flawless management of staff and premises (she has high expectations of herself), and of course a personal life that's sure to flip back and forth from romantic hope to business despair.

So the last thing she needs is to learn a rumor that owners of her newly purchased premises, the Windmill Inn, are fated to die under suspicious circumstances. Sharpening the discomfort is the news that her predecessor may indeed (as readers of course already know) have been murdered. "Before she had heard the suspicious deaths rumor, she had been fine. In fact, she had been sleeping in this inn for six months and never felt frightened. She wasn't a scaredy-cat ... She was the boss! ... She would not succumb to hysteria."

Doyle's writing is generally plot related, with plenty of Antonia's inner view of events and stresses. But this description she provides of the village around the inn sets the outdoor scene nicely:
East Hampton, renowned for its award-winning beaches, picturesque villages, and the ethereal light that had inspired some of the greatest American painters, is nestled on the top of Long Island's south shore, bordered by the Atlantic on one side and various bays on the other. Everything about the town is profoundly quaint: from the acres of farmland bursting with abundant crops to the shaded streets lined with windmills, shingled houses, and churches.
Then there are the characters from whom Antonia tries to pull details, including Naomi, who sold the inn to her:
"The official cause of death [for Gordon, the previous owner] was ... a heart attack," she said at last, glaring at Barbie, who still wouldn't meet her eye.

Antonia felt her heart race. "What was the unofficial cause of death?"

Naomi finally glanced in Antonia's direction. She gave a small smile, her lips curling enough so that her thin top lip disappeared into the bottom. The look reminded Antonia of a defiant child forced to lie to a teacher.

"Heart attack," Naomi repeated before adding, "but I'd bet my bottom dollar that this tramp here figured out a way to cause it."...

Antonia kept her eyes on Naomi. "Why didn't you tell the police if you suspected it?" asked Antonia.

Naomi rolled her eyes. "I wanted to make sure I could sell the inn. No one would have bought this place if they thought Gordon was murdered."
Antonia's friend Genevieve, who'd invited her East to buy the place, thinks the amateur detective role suits this new innkeeper to the max: "You're kind of nosy," she points out. "I mean, didn't your parents nickname you Snoopy because you were always snooping around?"

But the motive for the killings — yes, they multiply — begins to also threaten Antonia as she gets closer to understanding what's taken place. There's an inheritance at stake, for instance, as well as bad blood among previous employees of her inn.

Gutsy in a determined fashion, and creative in staging a situation to unravel the crimes, Antonia is a nice addition to modern amateur sleuths. And in spite of her relief at the end of the book ("glad to be officially out of the crime-solving business"), Poisoned Pen Press has two more in the series ready for this summer (amazing! three books in one summer! a treat for this who get frustrated with the slow pace of a series), and Carrie Doyle's fourth in her Hamptons murder mysteries will publish in 2021.

Just remember: Ignore the cover. Ignore the title. Go for the fun of an easy-read mystery in a charming setting. That's what summer (in the Hamptons or anyplace else) is meant for.

Note for mystery collectors: You could set up a nifty shelf of Hamptons mysteries, now that Doyle is adding so many. For instance, there James Patterson's The Beach House, Twanged from Carol Higgins Clark, even an R. L. Stine trio called The Sitter.
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.   

Monday, June 01, 2020

Space Force Military Thriller from Dale Brown, EAGLE STATION

“The suspense of Eagle Station lies in how each detailed flight maneuver in air or space will turn out, and who’ll walk away with few enough injuries to survive—and return to Earth with enough air and fuel to complete the trip.”

Dale Brown’s Patrick McLanahan series of military thrillers developed a second generation a few years ago, and Eagle Station is the sixth book featuring Patrick’s son Brad McLanahan. It’s good to know that these protagonists will survive for more books in the series, if possible, as military expeditions and necessary sacrifices multiply.

In Eagle Station, the United States is engaged in an undeclared but very real war with Russia and China, for dominance of the air globally and of the nearer regions of space. The author is a former U.S. Air Force captain, and the first few chapters are nonstop equipment narratives. (There’s even a a glossary of weapons and acronyms at the back of the book, for readers who love the Air Force and Space Force related details.)

Although the U.S. military, including Brad McLanahan and his about-to-be wife Nadia Rozek, has a lot to celebrate as the book opens, having captured and turned around to its own use an armed Russian satelite (“weapons platform”), renaming it Eagle Station, there’s still an ongoing struggle for world dominance among the great forces, and the American team’s showing off new tech marvels in a face-off for control with the Chinese in the South China Sea. No sooner do Brad and Nadia finish this perilous exercise than their planning skills are in demand back at home for an international rescue mission that will depend on their extraordinary flight skills under fire.

Chapters from the points of view of Russian and Chinese military leaders let readers know, well before Brad does, that the superpowers on the other side of the globe have a new target to dominate: the Moon. Chinese president Li Jun and Russia’s de facto leader Marshal Leonov pool their resources to place a military base on the “dark side” of Earth’s moon. Their successful feint toward a different project manages to leave the Americans behind.

But the U.S. military with the McLanahans involved is more than an armed service: It’s linked intimately with military-led private enterprise, big investments, and teamwork with an American President who trusts this team.

And Brad McLanahan points out that the enemy collaborators are far from stupid: “He shook his head. ‘Okay, look, I get the drift. A surprise return to the lunar surface would be a huge propaganda win for Russia and China. But the risks involved in using a wholly untested spacecraft for a stunt like that are huge. One serious hardware malfunction or one software glitch at just the wrong time and five gets you ten, you end up with a bunch of dead guys drifting in orbit or smashed to pieces in some crater.’ Nadia frowned at him. ‘You should not assume that Marshal Leonov and President Li Jun share our views on the value of human life.’”

Brown’s writing offers no hidden motives or turncoats—everything is right out front, including enemy maneuvers. And enemy aliens have no redeeming features. The suspense of Eagle Station lies in how each detailed flight maneuver in air or space will turn out, and who’ll walk away with few enough injuries to survive—and return to Earth with enough air and fuel to complete the trip.

Although character development is not part of this book’s structure, the use of technology foreshadowed by today’s collaborations of government, the Space Force, and private enterprise is outlined in striking detail. In fact, some of the gear described has already been asssembled by corporate groups like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance, as Brown notes at the start of the book. Brown’s fast-paced and risky portrayal of what the globe could see in terms of conflict is set in the very near future: labeled with the year 2022, with recent SpaceX news already meeting this tech fiction halfway.

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

Monday, May 25, 2020

Crime Fiction and Love: The Caitlin Strong Series from Jon Land (and More) [July release]

Crime fiction + Love: It shouldn't be an unexpected pairing. In some cases the masculine or police environment might call for using the term "loyalty" instead, but thumbing through favorite modern mysteries, often a powerful affection between characters acts to tighten the grip of a desperate choice for the investigator.

Look at some of the very popular series in print today: Louise Penny's Armand Gamache series, where Gamache puts himself at risk time and again for the sake of the people on his team, and they respond by maturing and developing deeper courage. Gamache's love for his wife is also front and center in the series, as well as the complicated relationship he has with his eventual son-in-law.

Julia Spencer-Fleming's police procedurals, set in upstate New York, circle around how alcohol and drug abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder affect Claire and Russ as they struggle to prevent and solve murders; Lee Child's Jack Reacher engages in local conflicts for the sake of individuals he's drawn to (and the heartbreak of the series lies in how often he loses contact with those people by the end of an investigation); Tim Hallinan's remarkable Bangkok books, the Poke Rafferty mysteries, focus on what Poke will do to protect and preserve his family and friends; and Julia Keller's West Virginia crime fiction confronting the scourge of opioid addiction does it "up close and personal" through family dynamics.

Jon Land writes several series, and my favorite, hands down, is his Caitlin Strong series. There's a whiff of paranormal to it, because the outrageously loyal and physically strong Guillermo Paz, a unique sidekick to investigators Caitlin Strong and Cort Wesley Masters, often feels driven by a sixth sense that lets him know when "his Texas Ranger," Caitlin, needs his protection. And Cort Wesley sorts through his quandaries with a rootbeer-drinking ghost. Beyond that, however, the books engage the classic motivations for Big Crime (everything in Texas is big, right?) and in a unique historical strand, they retell escapades from the previous generations of Caitlin's family who've also been Texas Rangers.

STRONG FROM THE HEART sends Caitlin hunting the roots of a Big Pharma cabal that's accidentally poisoned an entire Texas town. She needs to get to the criminals as fast as possible, because it's becoming clear that they are the same ones responsible for Cort Wesley's son -- a boy she has mothered for a decade -- making a nearly fatal experiment with snorting an opioid. Cort Wesley, not being an official law enforcement officer, is likely to face serious charges himself if he takes vigilante action against the cabal or its Texas-based leader. And just incidentally, the criminals here are psychopathic enough to re-target Caitlin's family in order to hurt her more.

Deepening the intensity of Caitlin Strong's pursuit is her even more personal stake this time: She's been taking Vicodin to deal with massive cranial trauma she received (see Strong as Steel), and both the targeted youth and her federal-level colleague "Jones" have hinted that she may herself have become an addict.

This book's title fits with another ongoing conflict of love and values in the book: Caitlin's struggle to define her position in terms of a recently discovered half-sister, Nola, who's far more violent (without regrets) than Caitlin herself:
"Let me handle this, Cort Wesley," Caitlin said, when she saw Nola Delgado drinking a Corona in one of the parking lot's few shady spots.

"I was thinking we double-team her."

"Better I do this alone."


"Because we share the same blood."

"But not the same heart, Ranger. Yours is as big and strong as your name. Hers most likely resembles a spoiled peach pit."
Later in the same scene, as Nola tries to goad Caitlin:
Caitlin didn't bristle at being addressed that way today. Maybe she was getting used to the truth. Maybe that was part of what Cort Wesley was getting at, being strong from the heart.
Reading Land's Caitlin Strong series requires relaxing with his very short chapters, thriller style, and having a few loose ends left behind (if Caitlin gets rid of her Vicodin, how's she going to handle the cranial pain, especially after she re-injures her head in another explosion?). But it's prime escape fiction, follows enough of the genre conventions to be satisfying, and -- yes, it's packed with how people act when motivated by love and loyalty.

No need to read the others in the series first -- they are not very dependent on sequence, so they make ideal titles to keep on the shelf for entertaining re-reading.

At the moment, the publication date for STRONG FROM THE HEART is July 28, from Forge Books. We don't often post this far in advance about a book, but this is an especially good year to pre-order, whether from a local bookstore or online.

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


You know how love makes your heart grow stronger, but also more vulnerable? Right, you've got it. Well, here's a personal story: A few years ago, Jon Land placed "Kingdom Books" into one of his other series, the one he co-writes with Jessica Fletcher under the "Murder, She Wrote" brand. He did it as a surprise gift to my husband Dave and me. And when the review copy came in the mail, we had just sold the books that made up the retail part of our "collector's resource" business here. Yes, all of them. Our hearts were broken. And I couldn't figure out how to tell Jon what had happened.

Dave and I were very fortunate to "find each other" when we were fifty, and to enjoy savoring books together. One reason we let go of the Kingdom Books retail end was, Dave had a cancer diagnosis and we knew the rest of our time was limited, as his could not be treated. A year after that, I had one also (mine was treatable, though). And in April 2019, when Strong as Steel was released, Dave died.

Some of you already know the fierce loss and storms of change that follow the long illness and then death of a spouse. (If you haven't experienced it, I'm glad for you -- but you also may not be able to guess how it takes your world off balance.) I'm back in the saddle, reviewing crime fiction/mystery books, usually at or before their release dates. I'm sorry that I wasn't "there for Jon" during that interlude. But ... as someone who positions love and loyalty so centrally in his books, I bet he understands.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Finale of the Poke Rafferty (Bangkok) Series from Timothy Hallinan, STREET MUSIC

[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Despite the classic investigations that Poke leaps into, with violence and threat and red herrings and regret, Poke Rafferty is a person who cares enough to listen, to experience, and to change, even in this final volume of the series.”

One of the best loved international crime fiction series ends this season, as Tim Hallinan’s Street Music is the ninth and final book on his Poke Rafferty Thrillers (Soho Press). Catching attention in the fourth book with an Edgar nomination for The Queen of Patpong, Hallinan's Poke Rafferty Thailand novels have won wide acclaim. 

For readers already following the series, Street Music represents a bittersweet farewell to the “little family” than Hallinan has nurtured. First there’s been Poke Rafferty himself, an American writer who settled in Bangkok, won over by its people and sense of community. Poke’s marriage to Rose, a “bar girl” and former “Queen” of the Patpong bars, created the frame for their eventual adoption of a much-battered but creative, caring, and eventually loving daughter, Miaow, a child of the streets.
Street Music opens with the presence of a new member of the family, a baby that’s already been highly controversial earlier in the series. It’s a boy! But Poke’s not finding “natural” fathering impulses; Rose’s ever-present set of women friends crowding him out of the bedroom and onto a lumpy couch has a lot to do with this. But so does the kind of parenting he’s already been doing, growing into protecting and nurturing Miaow. Her street roots have engaged her in peril multiple times, and Poke routinely mobilizes friends, especially one in the Bangkok police force, to help.

What peril approaches Poke and especially Miaow when a mysterious street women begins to follow him and asks him for a huge amount of cash as “protection money” to keep her from destroying the little family? How can Poke handle the resulting chaos without upsetting Rose and bringing risk to the baby as well? It’s rough when you find yourself lying to the people you love best, in order to take care of them.

An Afterword by Hallinan recaps his approach to the series, and the startling effect that setting up a first scene that involved Poke + wife + daughter + groceries = family. “The word family did the trick,” he explains. “I barely knew who these people were but the moment I realized they were a family, I thought that it might be interesting to drop a normal—if intercultural and self-assembled—family, who are trying to preserve relationships along traditional lines, into the world capital of instant gratification”—that is, into Bangkok.

Not only is Poke Rafferty being followed and blackmailed in Street Music—he’s also coming to terms with his understanding of poverty, which doesn’t always lead to crime (although he’d about to find evidence of possible murder). Another former bar girl, Toots, lays it out for him: “Some lady no good. I poor girl too, Poke. Then I lucky too much, marry Leon, but before, when I have no money, I not take. Not good for karma. You know, you are poor and you good, you win. You poor and you bad, poor win.”

This is exactly the kind of moment that makes Hallinan’s crime fiction, especially the Poke Rafferty series, so interesting and unusual: Despite the classic investigations that Poke leaps into, with violence and threat and red herrings and regret, Poke Rafferty is a person who cares enough to listen, to experience, and to change, even in this final volume of the series.

What does Poke learn about Miaow’s original parent(s), after all this time raising her? How will he come to grips with being the father of a baby boy, and the husband of a woman who’s just experienced her own major transition? Which friends will lead him into more danger to his family, and which will help him walk through it and survive?

Street Music is very readable without the earlier books in the series. But it’s a richer read when placed in their context. Read the others before it or after; chances are, once you’ve entered Poke Rafferty’s community, you too will experience some of his reasons to change.

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

Take Back Your Life: Women Get Stronger in THE LAST FLIGHT, Suspense from Julie Clark

All the publication dates lately are sliding around, as book publishers and bookstores adapt to a virus-threatened world. Ever get the feeling we are already living in a suspense novel of our own?

Still, THE LAST FLIGHT from Julie Clark has a pretty firm new release date of June 23 from Sourcebooks. And if you love a powerful and creepy work of suspense, so smoothly written that all you need to do is check that the doors are locked and keep turning the pages, this would be a great time to pre-order this crime novel. It's Julie Clark's second (the first was The Ones We Choose, in 2018). Chilling, twisty, and highly memorable, it's a good escape for the summer reading stack. Reader Beware: If you've been in the midst of an abusive situation, whether as the person working for a way out, or as the friend of someone facing those scary choices, THE LAST FLIGHT will nudge all your trauma buttons. And then, if you can keep going all the way through the book, it may convince you that if we "see" each other and lend a hand, there will be more fresh starts.

Claire Taylor Cook's trapped in a marriage so cruel, with a political husband so powerful, that her own death might be the only way out of it. With the help of a friend from her own past who has connections with organized crime, Claire begins plotting her own escape. It's not going to be easy—her abusive husband has her monitored all the time—but just the hope is enough to help her keep going: "Over the next year, Petra and I assembled a plan, choreographing my disappearance ore carefully than a ballet. A sequence of events so perfectly timed, there could be no room for error."

But of course, life's unpredictable. When an air crash threatens Claire's plan yet offers her a chance to hide in a new way, she takes action:
My eyes land on Eva's purse, and I reach into it and pull out a ring of keys and her wallet. I pocket the keys and open the wallet, memorizing the address on her license. 543 Le Roy. I don't hesitate. I walk out of the airport, into the bright California sunshine, and hail a cab.
It seems almost too easy—and it turns out to be dangerous. Soon Claire's risks have doubled, with the husband she's tried to escape hunting for her, and her "new life" being far from safe as well.

Clark's intense pacing turns even more compelling as she adds further twists. And when the book's done, even quarantine won't look so stressful anymore. Highly recommended for those who appreciate a thriller that's taut, edgy, and terrifying.

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Fine Traditional Crime Fiction with Spice, from Caroline B. Cooney: BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN

What a delight to plunge into a well-spun story in the hands of a skilled and powerful storyteller: BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN is (at a rough count) book 64 from Caroline B. Cooney, and it has a polished flow that makes its creeping uneasiness all the more striking. And yet it's also an entertaining book, in the sense that any awareness of how our lives muddle along in our "golden years" had to make us either laugh or weep.

For Clemmie—that is, Clementine Lakefield, a resident in a senior development populated by nosy neighbors, golf carts, and planned activities—accidentally exploring a neighbor's home plunges her into the risks and dangers of both her own past and her neighbors'. She's been living a carefully fabricated and protected existence, where even her closest relatives don't know her exact address and haven't been to visit her. But her neatly constructed barriers are not enough to block a swift search for her by a drug-crime kingpin, once she casually shared a photo of an object she's spotted at her neighbor's residence.

The tastiest part of BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN is Cooney's clever entry into Clemmie's life as an elderly lady, hiding out:
Clemmie stared at herself in the bathroom mirror. When her beautiful black hair first began to go gray, she'd dyed it, but when it got so sparse that her scalp showed, she'd started wearing a wig. Latin students were always the best kids, and classes were always small, so behavior was rarely a problem, but the fact was, you needed every weapon at your disposal when you were in charge of teenagers. Clemmie tried not to show weakness, even if the weakness was just thinning hair. ...

It was crucial to be calm. She knew from way too many encounters that panic was the deciding factor in failure. Looking her best would help her keep her poise. ... She crept out of Blue Lilac, the shivers starting in her gut but not yet visible on her body.
There's a familiar classic flavor to Cooney's writing, even as the suspense continues to ramp up. How powerful are the forces arrayed against Clemmie? Even if she survives this conflict with a crime network, will she still have any familiar, safe life to return to? Or will all the shame and horror she's carefully hidden be exposed?

A good fat traditional mystery of about 300 pages, with spicy insight, and a perfect distraction from the stresses beyond the doors. Take the passenger seat with this remarkable lady under fire. Published under the Poisoned Pen Press, by Sourcebooks.

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Brief Mention: CAGE by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Intense Icelandic Crime Fiction

Even before opening CAGE, the new crime novel from Iceland's Lilja Sigurðardóttir, there are three big "yes I want to read this" aspects to appreciate: (1) This is book three in Sigurðardóttir's outstanding Reykjavik noir series, which began with Snare, followed by Trap. (2) The translator is Quentin Bates, an award-winning crime novelist himself. (3) The publisher is Orenda Books, which is steadily and rapidly bringing outrageous and outstanding European fiction across the ocean. And here's a bonus point: The cover blurb is from the amazing Val McDermid.

Here is the only reason not to crack it open: The sex scenes in it are often quirky and sometimes sadistic. Although also sometimes heartbreakingly tender. Make your own choice on that basis.

The book opens with Agla, a gifted financial criminal, approaching the end of her prison sentence. Heartbroken at a lover's refusal before her time in jail, she's stayed depressed, isolated, and angry during her sentence—where she's also one of the few lesbians. When a cute and quirky woman seduces her in prison, she loses her heart all over again, and hopes for a life of love after release.

It's not that simple, though, because both of them and the people they connect with have dangerous ties to complex international criminal networks. And where there's high finance in such crime, there's also sexual trafficking of various sorts. It heats up quickly, starting with this prison visit:
'Yes, I know him,' Agla had said two weeks ago, and she had signed the visit request, even though she had never heard of this man before. Her curiosity had been sparked by the email in which he requested a visit. He had stated that there was an important business matter they should meet to discuss. She had forgotten about it until now. ...

He stood up and held his business card up to the glass. She could see a little picture of him in one corner, under the company's logo. Agla raised an eyebrow. International companies didn't make a habit of searching out convicts in Icelandic prisons to offer them work.
Pair these strands with a journalist who gets in over her head, and a pair of teens setting up an explosive hate crime, and CAGE is nonstop action all the way. Don't pick it up, of course, if the kinky sex will bother you -- but you can rely on a sort of justice eventually being established. It's a good ride.

Books by this author are arriving in the US a couple of years behind their European publication -- understandable with the time for translation. And worth waiting for.

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

Brief Mention: Fine Caper Crime Novel, LITTLE SIBERIA by Antti Tuomainen

A would-be race-car driver attempts suicide by fast car on a winter road in Finland, when instead of crashing the way he'd planned, his car is ripped apart by a random meteorite.

Now that's an opening that no crime novel has ever come close to! And from here, award-winning Finnish suspense author Antti Tuomainen rolls his snowball through one caper twist after another. For instance, there the value of the meteor—and the people who want it. Not to mention the small town where it gets placed temporarily and notoriously.

Here's a sample of Tuomainen's mid-novel explication, from the local pastor's point of view—a man with serious doubts about his own life:
The meteorite will be in the War Museum for a further two nights.

The list of people keen to get their hands on it seems to grow as time runs out. As for Leonid, I am in no doubt. He wants the meteorite. Karolina wants the meteorite and is apparently willing to collaborate with me — the guard on the night shift — to get it. Leonid is in love with Karolina, a matter that raises a number of questions.

Is Karolina employing Leonid's help in order to achieve her goal? If she is, why does she want to involve me in her plans? And if she isn't, why has she stared a relationship with a man for whom she feels no attraction? ... I feel as though I know them too well to think of them as my pursuers, and too little to know what really moves and motivates them. Of course, that applies to everyone I know, including my own wife. I don't even know the people I know.

Two more nights.
If you've had enough of the depressive side of "Scandinavian noir," here's your opportunity to snicker, guffaw, smirk, and otherwise enjoy a lively, fast-moving crime novel of marvelously black humor. Hurrah for Orenda Books bringing Tuomainen across the ocean, and for the deft translation by David Hackston.

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

American Espionage Deepens, with THE COLDEST WARRIOR from Paul Vidich

[Originally published at the New York Journal of Books]

There are two special pleasures for a book reviewer: to spot a stirring talent with the first published book from an author, and to see an author's skills and passion ripen during further work. If you savor a well-turned novel of espionage and moral challenges, THE COLDEST WARRIOR, the third book of espionage fiction from New Yorker Paul Vidich, belongs on your shelf.

Here's the premise: Readers know from the first chapter that Dr. Charles Wilson, a scientist in a high-security government program, became a major security risk in 1953 and was, ahem, enabled to take a plunge from a hotel window high enough above the Washington, DC, streets to kill him at once. But when CIA agent Jack Gabriel approaches retirement from the Office of Inspector General in 1975, twenty-two years later, he's tagged by his superiors to exhume the case and determine what role the Agency played in the death.

Vidich rarely gives much description of a scene or personal appearance, but sketches the interior of a character -- and all his significant ones are men -- deftly and sharply. Jack Gabriel's been drawn to his work by the "cerebral challenge" and the complex problems coupled to high adventure and an urge to fight "the great Cold War against Communism." But his choices are also based in deeper rhythms of moral character:
The call to worldly action had been planted in him by a mother who pushed him to excel in school, who did everything in her power to have him see opportunity beyond the small Midwestern town she hated. ... When young Gabriel arrived in New Haven [for college], he carried a bundle of hundred-dollar bills she had pressed into his hand, a fondness for Shakespeare, an affinity for his mother's Socialism, and a deep skepticism of the rituals of the Catholic Church. The world, he'd been taught to believe, was a dangerous place.
That's a very typical sample of Vidich's writing style, where disclosure comes more from the author's revelatory passages, and less from the situations playing out. In that sense, this author's style differs greatly from the classic work of John Le Carré, who reveals George Smiley's driving forces through his unexpected efforts on behalf of small people: a Russian emigré living in poor housing, a petty criminal who'd lost his beloved to a political betrayal, a retired police officer raising bees. Vidich also walks a very different journey from Olen Steinhauer, whose protagonists bleed from long-ago inner wounds and must rise above their understandable frailty when confronted by political evil-doing.

And the first few chapters of THE COLDEST WARRIOR aren't the greatest quality -- whether from overworking, or hasty rearrangement, or careless editing, it's impossible to know. Yet Vidich soon blooms with powerful moments and short snippets of insight that cut deep: Of one of the antiheroes in this thriller, Phillip Treacher, Vidich exposes Treacher's despair over his relationship with his wife by writing, "He was aware of the first lie he'd told her that Thanksgiving long ago. That deception had metastasized in his soul. He felt more alone than ever."

The halls of power in Washington, DC, shook in the 1970s from Presidential disasters like John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs fiasco, Richard Nixon's Watergate lies and brutality, and the casual use of the CIA to topple international figures. All of this comes through in THE COLDEST WARRIOR, as the threats around Jack Gabriel mount and writhe. The book spins quickly into risk and danger, and the final chapters, fast-paced and dark with threat, provide one of the best manhunt and intended escape sequences of current espionage fiction. One could quibble with the very last scene, a bit soft for a book of such terse "noirish" narrative -- but the heart of the book is so good that it's an important one to grab, read, shelve, and think about. What other moments in our nation's political past may metastasize in its soul? How about in its present season?

Pegasus, part of Norton, published THE COLDEST WARRIOR and released it in February. And of course, this is the year when fine books will falter, due to social distancing and the hum of anxiety across the globe. So order a copy, through a local bookstore's "curbside delivery" or online. You'll want the satisfaction of having read Paul Vidich's work now, when he rises toward the top of this field later.

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

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Brief Mention: ENEMY QUEEN, Erotic Suspense from Robert Steven Goldstein

This blog rarely runs reviews a month ahead of publication, but it's a strange season for bookselling and we're trying to give authors an extra chance this way.

Chess playing is traditional in my family-of-origin (my sons and grandsons play, too), so the title and delightful cover of the new crime novel by Robert Steven Goldstein, ENEMY QUEEN, grabbed my attention right away. It turned out to be pretty different from what I expected -- fair warning, only pick this one up if you can stomach a lot of sexual "play," including S&M and fetishes. Since that is emphatically not the area I shelve, I'll just mention here that this is indeed crime fiction: Two men who should have known better begin to share a house in a North Carolina college town, then invite a "shared" woman to join them. She takes over, a murder follows, and, umm, that's all I'll say. Publication date is May 12.

But I really like the cover!

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

Brief Mention: CLOSER THAN SHE KNOWS, Romantic Suspense from Kelly Irvin

Kelly Irvin is best known for her Amish romance books, but she also has a set of romantic suspense thrillers, and her latest is CLOSER THAN SHE KNOWS. In a clever introduction of a career rarely featured in crime fiction, protagonist Teagan O'Rourke is a court reporter who writes the official records, and we meet her at a moment when her task is far different from the desk work -- she's been in a terrible accident and must protect the evidence traveling with her. Soon the book's revealed to be stalker suspense, with Teagan as the victim and her potential beloved, Max Kennedy, as a sometimes fumbling but determined ally.

Irvin's drive to forward the romance for the couple sometimes pushes scenes a bit off kilter -- when Max gets wounded, it's not the crime that's elucidated, but his passion for Teagan, as he whispers from his gurney, "All I could think about was you. ... Life is short." And Teagan's own inner dialogue about the crime is, "Not being able to take people at face value sucked the life from a person."

Readers of romantic suspense as a subgenre will find CLOSER THAN SHE KNOWS to work familiar ground; make sure the doors are all locked, though, because the stalker aspect is pretty creepy, and the number of victims escalates rapidly. Those looking for Christian-themed fiction may also want to pick this up, although the religious aspects are a bit basic and blunt. If we ever get to beach reading this year (six feet apart for those towels?), this book will fit into the beach bag nicely. Publication date is May 13.

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

Friday, April 10, 2020

Nantucket Island's Merry Folger Mystery Series: Francine Mathews Writes Another Page-Turner

There's a subtle knack in writing a mystery that's edgy with risk and danger, but also threaded with human loyalties and questions, even love. Done right, the blend creates a book that you can't put down. And that's just what Francine Mathews (aka Stephanie Barron) has pulled off in her sixth Merry Folger mystery, DEATH ON TUCKERNUCK. The book release is May 5, so this is an advance review -- think of what a great reward it will be, to pre-order a copy for yourself.

DEATH ON TUCKERNUCK spins two narratives of smart women called into situations demanding courage. Detective Merry Folger, about to get married, has a career that calls for courage and persistence, and expects to navigate hazards. The nastiness of her current superior is a surprise, though, and playing havoc with her efforts to make it to her own wedding rehearsal, or even the ceremony. The excuse dragging her repeatedly back on duty is an off-season and mostly unexpected hurricane striking Nantucket Island, with a desperate need for all hands involved.

Her boss is already snarling at the island's deficits as she reports in:
"NEMA will take care of setting up a shelter at the high school, and distributing relief supplies from the elementary school," she concluded hurriedly before he could launch into his favorite diatribe, "but they'll need police at both places, for security."

NEMA was the Nantucket Emergency Management Agency, an island-sized version of the federal one that coordinated disaster relief.

Potock sighed and glanced at his watch. "That meeting's now in fifteen minutes ... I'm designating you notetaker."

"Very well, sir." Merry felt a surge of relief. At least she'd know where the gaps and problems were, heading into the storm. ...

"And detective?" he finally said. "Wedding or no? If disaster hits, you're on call, just like the rest of us."
There's a parallel narrative, though, when Dionis Mather's father collapses in a heart attack, needing emergency surgery, but the Mathers (father and daughter) haven't yet completed the rescues they're pressured into on Tuckernuck, an adjacent barrier island. When Dionis takes off into the storm to complete the tasks, she's headed into a worse danger than a hurricane at sea: There's at least one psychotic murderer grounded on that island, as readers are well aware.

Mathews is a gifted storyteller, able to keep both storylines pumping with adrenaline and shreds of hope. A few moments of a third perspective, that of the criminals, are sometimes distracting, but never for long, and the action and stakes are so compelling that DEATH ON TUCKERNUCK is a striking page-turner.

Nice work by Soho Crime in boosting Mathews into continuing this series, which had taken a 19-year break between book four and book five (Death on Nantucket) while the author, a one-time CIA intelligence analyst, wrote two dozen other books. It's great to see Merry Folger in action, and Nantucket's complicated social structure, economy, and history provide a dandy frame for these suspenseful police procedurals.

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

Clever New Mexico Mystery, LESS THAN A MOMENT, Steven F. Havill (Posadas County Mystery #24)

This is number 24 in the Posadas County Mystery series from Steven F. Havill, but the first of his books crossing the desk here. Hurrah for Poisoned Pen Press, which sent along a copy of LESS THAN A MOMENT. The book released on March 17, and since the press is now an imprint of Sourcebooks, it should be readily available despite our stumbling economy. Good news for seasoned mystery readers, indeed!

Long-time readers of the series will know that it has featured Sheriff Bob Torrez, who knows everyone (more or less) in this county along New Mexico's southern border. But in LESS THAN A MOMENT, Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman takes the lead on a pair of cases that look linked -- and that have deeply disturbed the region's relative peace. 

The first case is a drive-by shooting, with multiple rounds, of the town's newspaper office. Just a quirk of fate that two people were still working that evening, and injured, one of them badly. The other takes place halfway through the book, so it would be a spoiler to get too specific here. Still, it's no surprise that it involves a recent real estate deal that might threaten what's bringing the region its fresh prosperity: a set of mega telescopes gathering research data but also hosting public programs and visits, the chance to see deep into space, with a developer who's gradually won over most of the community, thanks to his generosity with jobs—except maybe no job for the sheriff's immature nephew, who's still drinking way to much. When a murder takes place, Estelle takes over the initial site survey and forensics:
The view downward wasn't so grand. The victim lay on his face, arms and legs spread-eagled as if he'd been determined to fly. Instead he'd plunged face-first the forty feet to the rocks below. The artfully eroded sandstone under his head was blood-soaked.

"Was Luke down there?" Estelle asked. The deputy had been with the Sheriff's Department less than a year, and Estelle was not yet confident that Deputy Luke Miller could resist galumphing his size thirteens through a potential crime scene before calling for assistance.

"Nope. He stopped right where we're standin' and called it in." He pointed south with his chin. "I took one climb down over there, stayin' on the hard rocks, and checked his wallet. It's in his left back pocket." ...

Estelle set her camera bag down and unzipped the main compartment, selecting a wide-angle lens. "Ay, this is going to be so bad." She took a deep breath and held it, then let it out as if she were exhaling a jet of smoke."
Likeable investigators, a plot nicely complicated with intriguing clues and sidetracks, enough risk in the final scenes to make it exciting -- this is a really well-written mystery, a police procedural of the Southwest that puts trustworthiness at front and center.

Now it's time to read the other 23.

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

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Sixth Mystery of the American Revolution from Eliot Pattison, THE KING'S BEAST

A few months ago, one of my Manhattan grandsons, this one age 11, mentioned to me that he was studying the Haudenosaunee. That moment set into perspective the stunning leap in two generations of the teaching of American History as a field. When I was his age, I knew Indians as the people who fought the Cowboys on the Western shows ... and could name a couple of East Coast tribes, sometimes with their colonized names.

But this youngster, seriously devoted to learning and experiencing the diversity around him and "behind" him, speaks the tribal name and has firm opinions about modern racism as well as the historic forms. I couldn't be more pleased -- for both my grandson and his teachers, as well as the world he perceives.

Part of the charm of historical fiction is the way it can swiftly teach readers, by immersing them in a world they enter emotionally as well as descriptively. Eliot Pattison's Tibet series, featuring Inspector Shan, began with an Edgar Award-winning title, The Skull Mantra, and probed the spiritual and religious background of Tibet at the same time as it fingered meticulously the Chinese occupation, adoption, and immigration into that landscape that was once a "Forbidden Kingdom" of mystic significance. And may still be.

With the end of that series, there is now room to focus intensely on Pattison's other growing series, the Bone Rattler books (named for its first title). Set in Colonial America, the series began with a striking premise: that a displaced Highlander (Highland Scot), exiled while mourning the death of his clan at British hands, might connect at soul-deep level with a Native American from a tribe that's been similarly destroyed, the Nipmuc, down to its last few members. So begins the difficult and rewarding friendship of Duncan McCallum and Conawago, in the uncertain landscape of a not-yet-formed nation of settlers, exiles, and the peoples who knew the land best and longest: its earliest known inhabitants, or, as they are called in Canada, its First Peoples.

THE KING'S BEAST opens in the Kentucky wilderness in the spring of 1769, with Duncan McCallum eagerly -- yet with some level of fear -- witnessing the excavation of skeletal remains of what modern readers will recognize as a mammoth, and later a sabertooth tiger. Duncan's on hand to make sure the fossilized bones reach the great Dr. Benjamin Franklin, a journey that only should extend as far as Philadelphia and amount to little more than being transport security for some scientific "curiosities."

But that plan goes quickly awry, with two major complicating factors: what the remains represent to the Seneca people at the "dig" site, and Dr. Franklin's deep intentions for the remains -- which in turn are seeing violent opposition from others on the new continent.

About a third of the way into THE KING'S BEAST, Duncan finds that Conawago is missing. The search for his friend and mentor becomes a rescue mission that whips Duncan across the ocean to London, England, and into an even more complex network of interacting political forces. The true stakes for Duncan involve his friend's safety. But as he comes to grips with the real Dr. Benjamin Franklin, he also has to confront what's emerging politically from the land that's become his own—the land that in a few short years will declare its independence.

Readers of the series know that Duncan is a trained medical doctor who has become, in his new land, a forensics resource and thus a "speaker for the dead." Pattison uses this skill to engage Duncan in sorting out crimes, especially murders, and that is certainly the case in this sixth title in the Bone Rattler series. But this hefty volume (more than 400 pages) also represents Pattison's effort to portray the forces leading toward Revolution, and their counterforces. Add to this his infusions of the sciences of that time and the economic forces in play, plus the decision to set the larger part of the book in England, and there's a potent load of information in the pages. At times, inevitably, it drags at the pace and passions of the story. With that in mind, here is one of the last American scenes unfolding:
Duncan weighed the words. "The bones are important, or the killers would not have tried to steal them on the Ohio. But," he added with a nod, "we should sleep in shifts, switching when the ship bell rings the change in watch," he suggested. He touched a pocket of his waistcoat, which held a slip of paper that he had been given in Philadelphia. He had long since memorized the address on it. 7 CRAVEN STREET. He prayed the powerful Dr. Franklin could protect them once they reached London.

Ishmael noticed Duncan's motion. He well knew what was in the pocket. "We have nothing to fear," he declared with a hollow smile. "We'll soon have the wizard of lightning on our side."
But their rescue mission involves entering an insane asylum that seems designed to torture, maim, and further demonize its inhabitants, and Franklin may not be as effective as hoped for.

Taking Duncan and his Nipmuc friend Ishmael out of the New World and into a sinister urbanity increases an unfortunate tendency for Duncan to react to forces, rather than to make choices. Not until the final scenes does he undertake independent action. Oddly, this gives the book some of the feel of a "cozy mystery" in which the protagonist flails against situations and tries repeatedly to suspect various criminal possibilities, until finally stumbling against the most dangerous person and having to exert physical and mental stamina to escape life-threatening peril .... and hence at the same time solving the crime in play.

The book's also clearly setting up for the next titles in this series. Another historical mystery author, James Benn, has moved his investigator Billy Boyle slowly through the years of World War II, and this fall will see the 15th in that series. Pattison's increments of historic time headed toward the American Revolution may likewise last for many more Bone Rattler books, and I look forward to them, even as my heart, as a willing reader, clenches to think of the vulnerability of Conawago and the fate of the tribes, in what lies ahead.

[Published by Counterpoint, available April 7.]

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here. (But if you're specifically looking for earlier Eliot Pattison reviews, click here as a shortcut.)

Thursday, April 02, 2020

The Best Cara Black Yet: Solid Suspense in THREE HOURS IN PARIS

Once in a blue moon, an author leaps from one genre or segment of writing, into another. And either it's an epic fail -- or it's WOW! Cara Black just made the WOW leap, in switching from her well-loved but long (and increasingly predictable) series featuring stylish Parisian detective Aimée Leduc, into a tremendous espionage thriller.

So if you only love Aimée and her struggles to purchase designer clothing in thrift shops while juggling her newborn baby and a couple of love interests -- well, nobody's going to force you to try THREE HOURS IN PARIS (Soho Crime, April 7 release). But you'll be missing a lot if you skip the transition. And new readers will find this book immaculately plotted, riveting in suspense, packed with unforgettable characters, and opening a chunk of historical Paris that's often forgotten: the three hours that Adolf Hitler spent in the City of Light, as it fell into Nazi hands in June 1940.

The story opens with an instant in the fingers, eyes, and heart of Kate Rees, a young American/British woman hidden in a dome in Paris, waiting for her moment to compress a rifle trigger and assassinate the German leader. The only reason she fails to do so -- she's a heck of a sharpshooter -- is the presence of an unexpected person on the steps in her sights: the one kind of person sure to shatter her composure and steal from her the precious seconds her task demands.

And then, in a flurry of pages, we're back eight months, in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, learning why Kate's reached this critical moment in an occupied city, in a land where she doesn't belong. Only the harsh events of war can move a person as sharply as Kate's moved in the following hours, days, weeks, speeding toward becoming a secret military assassin.

Her deep wounds, her grief and anger, make complete sense. What doesn't make sense, really, is how she gets recruited for the task. But Kate's in no position to think logically about that, even though readers will get a hint of what's happening behind her back -- and may feel almost as enraged on Kate's own behalf. But most of the time, the action of this well-written, fast-paced thriller distracts even a careful reader from the hidden plots-within-plots that seem destined to wound Kate again, as she risks her life:
Kate's blouse stuck to her back and her breath came in pants as she kept walking. Only a few more stairs until she reached rue Muller. She felt warm air rush past her ears, raise the hair on her neck as footsteps thudded on the stairs behind her. Any moment she expected her arm would be seized.

Then German soldiers were rushing up from behind and past her.


Just ahead on rue Muller the melon seller looked up, terror in his eyes.

A moment later he was surrounded ... Kate averted her gaze and kept to the wall. Bile rose in her stomach. She tied to block out the man's yells, which raked like nails across her skin. She wanted to reassemble the rifle and pick the brutes off one by one. A car bearing small swastika flags mounted on either side of the hood squealed to a stop on rue Muller. The doors opened and the old man was pulled inside.

Too late.

Keep moving.
Yes,  it's that fierce, all the way through. Next, of course, based on Black's past series, comes the question -- is this the launch of a new series? The final scene doesn't suggest it. But the date, 1940, leaves plenty of occupied Paris ahead. Could it be? If yes -- sign me up for more.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here. (But if you're specifically looking for earlier Cara Black reviews, click here as a shortcut.)

Brief Mention: Nonfiction for Crime Buffs (by Tom McCarthy, Bruce Goldfarb, Billy Jensen)

Our review platform is meant for ardent collectors of mysteries and crime fiction, as we ourselves have been for decades. That said, now and then a publisher or publicity person sends along a work of nonfiction related to crime. We generally just pass them along to someone who needs them (research! research!). Here are three that lingered in the office for a while and are now headed out to further readers ... you might want to order one or more of them for your reference shelf. Here's why:

1. You love caper mysteries. Maybe you grew up with Donald Westlake (or discovered him later in life) and love the humorous twist. Most of all, though, you appreciate a tale of a good heist. Your recent "likes" may include Tim Hallinan's Junior Bender series, or the San Juan Islands capers written by Bethany Maines, or some of the Colin Cotterill series and an occasional treasure from David Carkeet. Or, of course, you're still hoping someone will reveal what happened to the art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum? Nope, sorry, that's not in THE GREATEST HEIST STORIES EVER TOLD, edited by Tom McCarthy and published by Lyons Press in 2019. But DB Cooper is in here! So are eight other "compelling and true stories of brilliant plans, guile, and nerves of steel," as the editor describes the selections. "Planning is everything, and carrying out those plans is no easy task ... benefits for these clever thieves were abundant—loads of money and the freedom to do whatever they wanted with it. If only for a short time."

2. You're obsessed with how the forensics work out. Did you mark your calendar for the recent TV miniseries featuring Lincoln Rhyme hunting for the Bone Collector? Shelve every book by Patricia Cornwell next to your bed, until her later titles starting making you feel too ill or invaded your sleep with overly realistic nightmares? Do you pick apart a Kathy Reichs or even an Archer Mayor mystery, probing whether a death investigator or coroner would really miss that particular hint? Frankly, you need the back story, which you'll find in 18 TINY DEATHS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF FRANCES GLESSNER LEE AND THE INVENTION OF MODERN FORENSICS (Sourcebooks, 2020). Bruce Goldfarb whips the details of this woman's life and classrooms into a well-laid-out tale of scientific investigation. It puts the modern science into perspective and shows how hard it can be to move things forward ... especially as a grandmother without a college degree. The reading's a bit slow, but there are lots of golden nuggets.

3. You can't resist those late-night true-crime shows on TV; you drive extra slowly past any local murder site; you wonder whether the detectives would let you offer your insight, based on how clever or intuitive you are. Is that you? Or would you rather get the true story of someone this really applied to, and how he went from journalism to solving mysteries himself ... that's Billy Jensen, who relates his own engagement in crimesolving in CHASE DARKNESS WITH ME (Sourcebooks again, 2019). This is solidly first-person narrative, and doesn't pretend to be balanced. But my goodness, is it ever a page-turner! If you can put up with Billy talking entirely about himself and his perceptions, grab this for your shelf -- or give a copy to a friend who fits the bill.

Good luck! And don't use these as how-to books, please. There are no guarantees of success in such a field ...

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

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Long Awaited Crime Fiction from Julia Spencer-Fleming, HID FROM OUR EYES

Julia Spencer-Fleming's fan base has redefined loyalty to a mystery series, waiting nearly five years between books five and six in her Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne investigations, and again a gap headed toward eight years from book eight, Through the Evil Days, to book nine, ready to release on April 7: HID FROM OUR EYES. (Series list here, in case you want an organized look back. And Kingdom Books reviews of other JSF titles, here. )

There's good reason for this supportive passion: Both Clare Fergusson, Episcopal priest in small-town, upstate New York, and Russ Van Alstyne, the local Chief of Police for Millers Kill, are smart, loving, deeply human and hence wounded and flawed, and work with all their hearts for something bigger than themselves. Van Alstyne doesn't just solve crimes and seek justice; he also mentors an ever-changing roster in his department and beyond, nurturing the people who'll take care of his town through its darkest moments. And Clare, a combat veteran now "collared" and shepherding a mostly conservative flock, struggles more than many with her role of speaking about God and religion, managing her team for worship and community care, and, God help her, loving her now-husband, Russ.

But each of these two generous-hearted people works from underlying heartbreak. Russ couldn't please his father. Clare carries a serious case of PTSD that she's self-medicated for years with alcohol. And now they've got a baby, to add to the stress.

HID FROM OUT EYES jumps around some, starting with flashbacks to 1952, when Harry McNeil, then chief of police for the town, found an unsolvable murder on his hands, of a woman dressed in a party dress -- then 1972, when chief Jack Liddle found another. Now Russ confronts what looks like a continuation in the chain. But a serial killer would have aged out by now, right? Could it be a copycat crime? Yet there are too many corresponding details to make that likely.

Meanwhile, Clare, who's chilled by constant fear that her drinking in early pregnancy may have damaged the child she carried, keeps heading to the pediatric doctors for diagnosis or reassurance. The latest practitioner there, Dr. Underkirk, assures her that her child's difficulty sleeping and fussiness are quite normal for a four-month-old. Especially one who's showing no problems at all at the doctor's office.
"I don't want to minimize your concerns. ... I'm going to suggest that part of your baby's behav iro might be iatrogenic rather than innate. That means —"

"It's a reaction to my behavior? I'm causing it?"

The doctor held up a hand. "I'm talking about the total environment, not just you. ... you're dealing with fairly new sobriety and some issues with your military service. Do you have any PTSD symptoms?"

Clare had been about to say I'm not an alcoholic, for heaven's sake but was diverted. "Symptoms? Yes. Sometimes."
When she leaves with a "prescription" for getting consistent child care help and some calming mediation, she's also carrying the doctor's "airplane emergency rule in life": nothing to do with how you fly a plane (although Clare knows a lot about that), but "Always secure your oxygen mask first before attending to your child."

And that might be a good route to follow, except, as readers of the series already know, Clare's never been good at taking suggestions or following "good ordinary direction." She and Russ are under intense pressure to save his local police department, threatened by local budget cuts. If he loses his job, they might have to move, taking her job away in the process. More importantly, though, Clare hasn't been honest with anyone, not the doctor, not Russ, not her colleagues, maybe not even herself, about how hard her addiction's become in self-management. She longs for stress relief, while her stress just keeps rising.

Solving the murders starts to involve conflict with the community, which doesn't make anything easier. And the ticking clock of the town vote, on top of the enduring violence and warped person or persons unknown, committing murder and posing a threat to both Clare and Russ, ramps up the tension to nearly unbearable.

There are no easy solutions to this situation. And even if the criminal is named and located, will the crimes end? What about the future for these much-loved individuals?

Fans and new-to-the-series readers alike will rejoice that the ending of the book clearly promises a sequel. But the costs piling up are terrifying by that point. Twelve-step recovery folks, beware of triggers in this one -- take some space and call your sponsor if it gets too rough. You know, those self-care efforts that Clare can't seem to get the hang of. Right?

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Forceful Swedish Police Procedural from Johana Gustawsson, BLOOD SONG

Between the harsh cover design and the threatening title, readers eyeing the American release of Johana Gustawsson's "Roy & Castells Thriller" BLOOD SONG (Orenda Books) could figure the book for gory, gruesome, and dark. And some readers might not open it, as a result.

But although this detailed police procedural investigates a multiple murder that's  part of a series of killings rooted in historical horrors from Spain's Franco years, the focus of Gustawsson's writing, as in her award-winning Block 46 and Keeper, is on the tender and insight-laden interactions of two detection professionals: profiler Emily Roy, and crime historian Alexis Castells. Each woman walks with significant wounds from her courageous interludes in the past, but they've worked together before and built significant trust. So when the arc of investigation begins to curve toward their own families, each can borrow strength from the other and keep moving forward.

Gustawsson interleaves three, even sometimes four, points of view, clearly marked at the start of each chapter with place and date -- so this diverges from a traditional narrative. The most baffling flashbacks, horrible in the abuse and torment portrayed, are set in Spain in the 1930s. Only knowing that this skillful storyteller must have a purpose can pull them into the mystery at hand. At it's not until well past the midpoint of the book that the strands show their deeper connections.

Instead, the action begins with a triple murder in Falkenberg, Sweden, in December 2016, not long before the long-planned wedding for Alexis. Although Emily is based in London, she's immediately drawn into the case because the victims are family members of a younger woman she cares very much for, named Aliénor. Emily's own inner traumas are massive -- they're not explained fully here (see at least Keeper, before or after you read BLOOD SONG, or just go with the flow, as Emily's colleagues do), but her unemotional presence in crime-solving team meetings says a lot, as does her coping mechanism while investigating such horrors:
The cold struck her full in the face as Emily stepped outside the station. Greedily sucking in a few breaths of icy air, she crossed the street and went to sit on a low stone wall beside the pavement. Then she took a little black box out of her inside coat pocket. She opened it and gazed inside for a few seconds.

That was always the hardest part. Being in tune with her senses, without letting her emotions overwhelm her.

Emily tucked away the image of Aliénor in the empty box. She contemplated her friend's face for a moment, then closed the lid.
Gustawsson's writing, and her clear insistence that injustice must be exhumed and confronted, make it necessary to press forward with Emily and Alexis as the meaning of the crime finally emerges — along with other disturbing secrets. Some crimes take a generation or more to solve. But in this book, as Martin Luther King Jr. asserted, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Haunting and Enchanting, THE GLASS HOTEL from Emily St. John Mandel

[originally published at the New York Journal of Books]

Mandel’s symphony of belief and offerings builds slowly to a pattern that, in the midst of loss, insists on meaning and value to the half-understood, half-intended journeys that people so often take.”

Some places lend themselves to mystery from the start. In Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, a luxury hotel on the edge of ocean-isolated wildness provides a set piece of wonder and mystical connection: the Hotel Caiette, a five-star location on the north edge of Vancouver Island, off the coast of Canada.

Follow the bartender’s gaze, as she offers both warmth and intelligence to fabled investor Jonathan Alkaitis. For Vincent, whose half-brother has little to give her, and whose mother died in the nearby waters, perhaps of suicide, the elegance and wealth of Alkaitis represent an opportunity that the island itself could never offer: a chance to live graciously, luxuriously, embraced by travel, fine clothing, and a blunt but kind role as not quite wife, not quite mistress, and almost a partner in how Alkaitis spins his own sense of fantasy.

Alkaits is indeed an expert at raising financial fiction. Through gazes into the past and future, it’s not long before readers understand the parallel between this mogul and the now-infamous Bernie Madoff: Without malice, without any intent to harm, Alkaitis and a close circle of “asset-aware” employees have stacked investments that turn out to be fictional at best, tangled in Alkaitis’s own desire to please everyone and make them feel good – until he can’t meet the call for funds, and the whole pile collapses.

What Mandel does, in her layered and tender narratives, is show the haunting that love and good intentions can create. In fact, Alkaitis himself becomes haunted by the people who’ve died in his “best of intentions” scheme. And Vincent? What can she find for her own eventual liberation, despite the dragging anchor of her half brother, whose dreams and pain also become part of this stacking of tissued longing? Her strength and exuberance ring bold and clear. Still, she leapt into the game from a position of no power, no assets. Alkaitis doesn’t seem ready to add to her base, except within the careful agreement the two have crafted.

Although Vincent and Alkaitis occupy the heart of The Glass Hotel’s spiraling story, each character is brought to delicately blushed color as if in Japanese watercolor, through the moments Mandel provides for them, either in their visions or in their settings. Like this, between a relatively minor character, Leon, and his wife Marie:

“’We move through this world so lightly,’ said Marie, misquoting one of Leon’s favorite songs, and for a warm moment he thought she meant it in a general sense, all of humanity,  all these individual lives passing over the surface of the world with little trace, but then he understood that she meant the two of them specifically, Leon and Marie, and he couldn’t blame his chill on the encroaching night.”
Trembling between a crime whose effects devastate the lives of many, including of those Alkaitis truly treasures, and the hauntings that seem threaded to Vincent’s own passion and insight, The Glass Hotel also places life and dying into their necessary parallel positions of meaning—or, to inappropriately offer another song lyric, “You can’t have one without the other.”

Mandel’s symphony of belief and offerings builds slowly to a pattern that, in the midst of loss, insists on meaning and value to the half-understood, half-intended journeys that people so often take. And wake up to, and marvel, and perhaps see through the glass.

NOTE: For a quick take on Mandel's earlier (2014) Station Eleven, a pandemic-related novel, click here.

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