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.   

Monday, March 16, 2020

Local Book News: THINKING INSIDE THE BOX from Adrienne Raphel

No, this is not a mystery ... not even poetry ... but here in the Northeast Kingdom we're especially proud of our locally rooted authors, and that applies to Adrienne Raphel. So this is a heads up: Adrienne's long-awaited book probing the life of crossword puzzles and their fans launches on March 17, and with commerce in person getting pretty sluggish in this pandemic period, I bet it will be easy and fun to get this book online:

(And the other usual outlets, of course.)

Congrats to Adrienne and her family on another gem in print!

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Donna Leon's Newest, TRACE ELEMENTS, Exploring Another Venice Mystery

[originally published at the New York Journal of Books]

“The plot and related risks are less dramatic than usual, and perhaps less memorable, but in the long run, this is a book rich with questions of honor and trust, offered from the hand of a master storyteller.”

It’s tempting to itemize the many pleasures of a Donna Leon mystery: reconnecting with Commissario Guido Brunetti, who is both kind and clever and often becomes appropriately infuriated with the injustice and malice his job exposes him to; exploring Venice through his gaze, which is the gaze of a lover who barely notices the latest attire but instead revels in the scent of the body, the shared history, the upcoming meals together; and tiptoeing behind Brunetti in order to slide, unnoticed, into his Venetian family’s home, where amazing culinary delights appear routinely, teenaged children become wise, and forgiveness and intelligence are equally prized.

And then there are the plots – each of which reveals, in layers, the deeply prized (and sometimes fragile or misled) culture of Venice and its surroundings.

In Trace Elements, Leon opens with a dying patient at a hospice care facility, who’s requested a chance to speak to the police. When Brunetti and his not-yet-seasoned colleague Claudia Griffoni respond, they find Benedetta Toso too ill to give a coherent report. But her husband, recently dead on a motorbike ride that ended in a canal, is clearly on the woman’s mind, and what she is able to say is disturbing: “It was bad money. I told him no,” the patient says clearly, in her first lucid moment of the visit, followed a few minutes later by “They killed him.” And that’s about all she can convey before collapsing.

Struck deeply by the woman’s suffering, Brunetti and Griffoni commit themselves to tracking down what must, at least to the dying signora, have been a serious crime, perhaps murder.

Fans of the series will be enchanted by the adroit research that the police department’s administrative “assistant” (everyone knows she’s far more than that), Signora Elletra, provides as Brunetti pulls apart the strands of what the dead man had investigated, and his role in possibly hiding or altering data at a water testing lab. Of course, Brunetti’s boss, Patta, gets in the way, and the Commissario’s wife Paola provides sensible commentary. Most poignant, though, are the small interludes of conversation between the investigators and the people they care about or care for.

For instance, Brunetti’s daughter Chiara challenges her father about one of his old friends whom she calls “Zio Giulio”: “Is he in the Mafia?” the teen asks bluntly. As Brunetti struggles to put this into context, he gropes: “His father was. … So that’s what the Mafia is like. If you’re born where it is, your thermostat adapts to it. Not everyone’s, but lots of people’s.” Chiara wants a more definite answer, and Brunetti is stranded among all the details and history that tint the picture for him: “How to tell her about Giulio and his connections, his law practice and the clients he defended, the things he could make happen with a phone call?”

This interlude in fact is prelude to the kinds of moral choices Brunetti and Griffoni must repeatedly struggle with, as they discover who in the water pollution testing world is committing crimes, at what level, and who can be held responsible – in fact, how they may need to assist Justice in balancing the scales, strictly legal or not.

Leon’s ability to paint both her city of Venice and the quandaries of commitment make this Trace Elements a quietly powerful book. The plot and related risks are less dramatic than usual, and perhaps less memorable, but in the long run, this is a book rich with questions of honor and trust, offered from the hand of a master storyteller. 

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

Monday, March 02, 2020

Brief Mention: Colleen Coble, ONE LITTLE LIE, Romantic Suspense

Colleen Coble is an astonishingly prolific author, mostly of romantic suspense with a thread of church participation. In ONE LITTLE LIE, which seems to be the first book of a new series for her -- the Pelican Harbor Series -- Coble brings us Jane Hardy, newly appointed interim sheriff of a small waterfront town in Alabama. She's filling the shoes of her father, who's retired, but she gets the job unexpectedly and with no time to catch up.

Almost immediately, she's caught in a murder investigation, one that becomes increasingly creepy as at least one stalker seems to be involved. Coble's switches of viewpoint keep the reader more aware of the threat level than Jane Hardy is, which doesn't always work well in terms of plot twists and surprises. Everyone seems to be dropping hints all the time. On the other hand, this author is a master of suspense, especially of romantic suspense. Characters wonder about each other's thoughts and feelings all the time, even as danger heads their way.

Because it's clear from the start that Jane's past involves a cult, other aspects of the suspense are pretty obvious ... power struggles of the past will soon catch hold of her.

Whose lie is the dangerous one? Jane's? Her father's? The murderer's? Or even the premise of the cult itself?

If you enjoy feeling on edge all the way through a work of suspense, this one will suit you, while laying the groundwork for a sequel that's clearly in the pipeline.  Thomas Nelson released the book on March 3.

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

New from Betty Webb, THE PANDA OF DEATH, a Gunn Zoo Mystery

In her sixth Gunn Zoo Mystery, THE PANDA OF DEATH, Betty Webb provides a relaxing, intriguing, and at times even charming armchair delight to enjoy in this in-between season. Narrated by zookeeper Theodora "Teddy" Bentley, it features the newest resident of the local zoo -- a red panda, not at all like the classic black-and-white version -- plus the competitive vibe of California would-be actors and writers. Most importantly, it's Teddy taking on yet another (forbidden) effort to solve a crime. But how can she resist?

Any other happily married spouse might get understandably defensive and angry, upon discovering her husband fathered a child long before they married ... yet never even knew he'd done it. When 18-year-old Dylan comes into Teddy's life, she's charmed by him, and goes to see Lauren, the ex-girlfriend of her husband, and mother of this delightful young man.
She shrugged and looked back up, meeting my eyes. "Look, I just couldn't cope, so for a while I simply did what everyone told me to do. Until Dylan was born. Then I took one look at him and everything changed."

Her movie-star face twisted, and I could see how hard she was trying to keep from crying.

Seeing Lauren's grief spurred me toward resolve. Regardless of what happened, I would find out who had really murdered Cliff Flaherty.
Murdered? Oh, that's another unexpected detail -- no sooner had Teddy met and, with her husband Joe, embraced the newfound family member, than the police turned up and arrested him on charges of killing a local and particularly unpleasant TV script writer.

Nothing gruesome or horrific in this one -- a series of clues, classic red herrings, and emphatic efforts toward solving the crime follow, and along with the triumph of justice, both friendship and family surge to the forefront. Pick this one up for traditional mystery puzzle solving without stress, and enjoy again Betty Webb's behind-the-scenes knowledge of animals at the zoo, along with Teddy's steady progress toward a happy ending.

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

Like Your Noir Crime Fiction Very Dark? Pick Scott Phillips, THAT LEFT TURN AT ALBUQUERQUE

When the first hardboiled crime novel from Scott Phillips, Ice Harvest, came out in 2000, nominations and awards quickly swarmed to the clever and sardonic book. (Dave and I picked up multiple copies and were thrilled to get them signed.)

In a great twist of plot, Phillips has brought his latest, THAT LEFT TURN AT ALBUQUERQUE, over to Soho Crime (Soho Press's imprint) and grabbed a dynamic platform for his wicked work. Taking the classic slip-into-crime approach that Donald Westlake so excelled at, Phillips provides the slimy and increasingly unlikeable Douglas Rigby, a California attorney who should know better. But then of course, making dumb and immoral decisions just "happens" to Rigby. None of it is his fault ... right?

Home for a quick lunch with his real-estate agent wife, Rigby's no longer as jittery about his upcoming financial disaster as he had been the night before, and assures his spouse:
"Don't worry about it, baby. It's under control."

"We could lose the  house, Rigby. That's a disaster for anybody, but for a real estate agent ... Jesus, I don't even want to think about it."

"Baby, did I just say I've got it under control or didn't I?" He was squirting Sriracha sauce onto a plate of cottage cheese.

"You did, and as usual you left out the important details. All the details, in fact. And also the broad strokes. ... Don't blow smoke up my a**, how much trouble are we really in?'

He shrugged and made a face, eating fast and talking with his mouth full of pinkish, mushy curds. "Look, we're not out of it yet, but I've got a plan. We're going to be fine. Now, all I need is for you to stop worrying."
And that's classic Phillips -- if Rigby's casual amorality isn't obvious in his clichés of "I've got it and it's not my fault anyway," his disgusting habits round out the character description, don't they?

If you're already a Phillips fan, you're bouncing in your seat by now, wondering how much worse things will get and how many stupid solutions Rigby will come up with, before getting caught in his own leg-hold trap. And if this author is new to you, imagine Westlake's most disastrous crime capers, shoved into darker and more dire straits ... or Dave Zeltserman's morally ambiguous criminals on the loose, shackled only by having a home life they mistakenly think they might be owed.

It's good to see the twisted noir end of the Soho shelves filling up with deftly narrated, irresistibly twisted material like this! But of course, it won't fit every taste. So, reader, consider yourself warned -- and invited. How bad can Rigby's decisions get? Once you're halfway in, you won't be able to resist finding out.

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

Sunday, March 01, 2020

British Crime Fiction by Michael J. Malone, IN THE ABSENCE OF MIRACLES

Families. They have their noisy dysfunctions and their quiet secrets, but for the most part, they manage to get along. Until something in that managing snaps, with devastating consequences.

That's the situation in John Docherty's family, in the new crime novel from British/Scottish author Michael J. Malone, IN THE ABSENCE OF MIRACLES. John's mother's stroke won't let her go home again from nursing care, and John, clearing the house in order to put it on the market, discovers enough evidence to realize that his mother and father -- a police detective -- have hidden something he had every right to know: He is not the oldest child in his family, after all.

How much should he dig into this secret, with his mother so ill, and his father already dead? Will it only cause pain? His father's old friend, also in a nursing home, suggests as much:
"If you'll excuse an old man for speaking out of turn ..." He paused while another cough wracked his frail form. "I loved your old dad like a brother. He was a fine, fine man," he said as if he was keen to offer me something, without breaking any promises. "You need to go, son, before I say too much. But think on this: only an eejit runs away from the present by burying himself in the past."
Malone tips the point of view occasionally to that of John's own good friend Paul, who cautiously asks whether John ever suffered abuse as a child. John's answer is a firm "no" and he has no doubts. It's only Paul's odd question that unsettles him.

But John's a broken-winged creature in life, unable to keep his own promises to an important girlfriend and uneasy in his teaching career. In order to discover whether he really once had an older brother who has vanished, and to confront the long-buried demons of his soul, he and his allies will have to pull off the covers of terrible crimes, proving emphatically that the past isn't even past -- it's what shapes us now. And, short of a miracle, opening up the dark passages can be deadly.

Malone's far better known in Britain than in the US, but thanks to Orenda Books, readers can now access his award-winning crime fiction. When you visit this website, be sure to dig down a layer and sample the powerful range of his work.

Best of all, despite the horrific crimes that Docherty discovers (fair warning: some are sexual, but the book's so well written that it's bearable), IN THE ABSENCE OF MIRACLES is equally a tale of heart and friendship. Near the end of the book, John Docherty's painful realizations also generate this thought: "It's kindness that brings us back to ourselves."

Highly recommended, and released for publication in the US today.

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

Saturday, February 29, 2020

A Taste of Summer, in a New Cozy from Bree Baker, A CALL FOR KELP

I don't usually review a book this far ahead -- A CALL FOR KELP won't release until May 26. But I reached my limit on winter wonderland this week (entering March in Vermont is not really springlike), and dove into an advance review copy. Bree Baker's Seaside Café Mysteries, set in the North Carolina beach town of Charm, are sweet in every sense of the term: packed with foodie delights (and always some recipes at the end), layered with friendship and blossoming romance, and nimbly plotted to show how crime erupts from greed and ignorance. And how family and friends will pull you through challenges.

The series features Everly Swan, back in her hometown and running a café that specializes in all sorts of sweet tea blends, as well as summery delights like mango shrimp spring rolls (yes, that recipe is included!). Although pestered by the presence of her ex-boyfriend, a rodeo type, she's steadily making progress in a new relationship with the town's law enforcement detective, Grady Hays. But has Grady set a spy into Everly's business, to try to keep her out of investigating further crimes? How can she hold back, when her beloved great aunts are at risk once again?

Suspecting her new assistant Denise -- also the caregiver for Grady's son Denver -- pins Everly in an awkward position.
"I hope it's okay that I'm here already. I thought I could help you with the morning prep and we could talk more about the Mitzi Calgon case." She whispered the last part of her statement, then gave the world around us a quick look presumably for prying eyes or ears.

I pulled my lips to the side, unsure how to respond and feeling like her comment was part of a setup. Possibly something Grady concocted to gauge my involvement or teach me a lesson. ... "I thought you wanted me to stay out of Mitzi's murder," I said, glancing briefly into Denise's eyes before turning back for my house.
There are so many delightful touches and twists in this briskly paced mystery: the victim is a former actress from pirate films, the town swells with fans, Everly wrestles with doubts, and other romances look like they're blossoming too, in spite of more threats of violence.

Don't expect Everly to solve all the details on her own. The way her friends pitch in, though, is well worth the read, the red herrings make sense, and the solution to the murder is highly satisfying.

So when winter gets a bit much for you too, start lining up that important summer-time TBR stack, with a pre-order of A CALL FOR KELP at your local independent bookstore or online. No need to read Bree Baker's other books before this one, but all the Seaside Café Mysteries are enjoyable, and you might as well add more while you're ordering!

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

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Walter Mosley's Newest, TROUBLE IS WHAT I DO: Swift Tight Plot, Great Language

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

“Beyond the usual detective/PI action, Mosley creates a model for writing that moves off the ‘race card’ and back to true descriptions.”

When Walter Mosley writes a detective novel that’s short, it’s because every word counts, with no padding. Trouble Is What I Do (Mulholland Books) plunges into the important details on the first page, as Leonid McGill explains why Mardi Bitterman works at the front desk of his office: “She’s the detective agency’s secretary-receptionist and also the human barometer that helps maintain my moral bearings in a world where sin is reflex and kindness a quick death.” She and Leonid have a word code that specifies her assessment of a client’s potential threat to Leonid. And this time she’s about to bring the folks back to him, so she’s saying they seem all right and Leonid should treat them as such.

However, the seasoned detective still pockets his handgun while the clients are on their way: “Mardi’s intuition of human nature and potential was better than mine—but she wasn’t infallible.”

As it turns out, Mardi’s on the money this time, but the clients are bringing both trouble and life-threatening danger with them: All Philip “Catfish” Worry, who’s probably almost 100 years old, wants McGill to do is deliver a letter … to Catfish’s own granddaughter, who has no idea that he exists. Or, more importantly, of the color of his skin.

That ought to be routine, but the generation in between Catfish and the young lady, who’s about to get married, definitely doesn’t want the connection to take place. In fact, the young lady’s father has a contract out on Catfish, with one of the most deadly paid assassins that Leonid McGill has ever known about. And Leonid will have to place his own life on the line if he gets involved.

Walter Mosley spins a swift and sweet tale of friendship, family, clever twists, and what it means to be a moral person, even though, as Catfish describes Leonid, he’s “the kind’a brothah-man been on both sides’a the line.” Most of the other characters show their true selves quickly, like the man who took out the contract: “In an interview, he’d called Nigeria a shithole and its president a nigger in a hat. When there were protests, he simply stated, ‘In America, we believe in free speech.’” (Why does that sound familiar?)

Threats and revelations make this slim book—166 pages long as a hardcover, but in a format that will fit in a large pocket—one that’s hard to put down. But beyond the usual detective/PI action, Mosley creates a model for writing that moves off the “race card” and back to true descriptions. Here’s an example from the first appearance of his new client, complete with great-grandson in tow: “Behind the youth, a senior citizen trundled lightly. The young man had chocolate-brown skin. His elder was what they called redbone back in the day. … It described a light-skinned Negro. They both wore new blue jeans, checkered blue work shirts, and hard leather shoes that had counted more miles than a Fitbit could imagine.” Mosley extends this color-detail descriptive mode to others in the tale as well, like the dope dealer Patrice Sandoval, who has “fair skin and hair the color of finished maple wood,” and the massive Wolfman Chord: “Wolfman’s skin was a deep brass brown, and his face was that of an intelligent, inquisitive child.”

These stirring descriptions move Trouble Is What I Do from casual PI fiction to a statement of what Mosley’s been known to assert, ponder, and sometimes say from another direction: that we may be in a “postracial” society in America. If that means moving to characters who come in marvelous varieties of skin color and appearance—instead of tagged as “white” or “black”—many a reader and future writer may benefit greatly from this soon-to-be-classic crime investigation. 

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

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Turning a Thriller into a PI Investigation: I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP from Alan Orloff

There's a problem with reading in bed, if you're reading a lot of crime fiction: Sooner or later, you'll scare yourself out of a good night's sleep. The solution to those moments will also leave you short of sleep, but at least you'll have hope -- that is, you just keep reading until the plot twists finally tidy up and the character you're hoping will survive somehow makes it through ... or at least has a meaningful death. At 4 a.m. Right?

Actually I'd rather not have to white-knuckle a book like that. So when the cover for I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP, new from established thriller author Alan Orloff, started me checking that I'd locked the doors ... I worked out a way to read it in the daytime.

Turns out the cover was a bit more creepy than the book. And -- the book's well worth savoring. Anderson West, running his own investigation firm, gets shoved into accepting a case for, well, free actually, when his sort of messed-up sister Carrie connects right away with Jessica, a client being stalked:
"I don't have much money," Jessica said.

Before I could respond, Carrie jumped in. "Don't worry about that either. The State of Virginia Professional Investigator Oversight Department requires us to provide a certain amount of pro bono services every year. I'm happy to say your case qualifies."

I raised an eyebrow at Carrie. There was no such department, no such requirement. My sister just had a soft spot for innocent people getting terrorized.
In fact, Anderson West may sound tough, but he'd just as ready to tackle the case of the horrible threats landing in Jessica's life. And from here on, the book's a classic PI detection tale -- checking out all of Jessica's exes (is there a significant reason she's bouncing from one guy to another?) and getting glimpses of the criminal mind behind the torment.

The plot ramps up to terror when a "gift" for Jessica arrives where she works: a locket containing a photo of her in a wedding dress, with a bloody streak down the front.

Anderson West and Carrie make an intriguing team. I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP spins them into a nicely twisted investigation. Orloff could have gone further, putting his investigators at risk in new ways ... if readers are fortunate, he'll follow this with a more intense sequel (as one might often expect from publisher Down & Out Books!). Meanwhile, here's a good read that won't require you to pre-dial 911 when you hear the house creaking.

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

Saturday, February 08, 2020

San Juan Islands Mystery #3, AN UNFAMILIAR SEA, Fast-Moving Traditional Mystery from Bethany Maines

There are two kinds of crime fiction: the ones that begin with action, suspense, and risk, and the ones that build up to it with a few chapters that connect you first to the characters and the setting.

No, come to think of it, there's a third kind, and Bethany Maines writes this kind -- the ones that begin with a moment of conversation that makes you snort your coffee in the wrong direction, or grin so widely that strangers ask what you're reading.

Maines brought out a series a decade ago based on a global cosmetic company being a front for high-tech, high-action women agents in international espionage. Those "Carrie Mae" books tended to get me into trouble with my quietly reading spouse, because I'd be choking, laughing, and insisting on telling him the wild and wildly funny plot twists.

With her San Juan Islands series (islands off the coast of Washington state), Maines takes a few steps into more traditional layouts for detection and espionage: Tish Yearly, a lapsed actress, wound up living with her aging grandfather Tobias on Orcas Island because she ran out of other options -- and learned in the process that he's a retired CIA agent. To keep him busy, she's helped him get a private investigations agency rolling, and at the start of book 3, AN UNFAMILIAR SEA, Trish is digging into island life by opening her own business: a wedding destination.

But nothing's as simple as it sounds at first. For example, there's the process of being a boss -- when Tish least expects it, an employee for the wedding business anounces, "I'm pregnant."
Tish's thoughts and her feet came to a stumbling halt. "What?" Tish stared at twenty-two-year-old Penelope Drue, who was clasping and unclasping her hands in front of her chest. Penelope looked like she needed more than a one-word question, but Tish needed more than a two-word announcement. "Congratulations?" Tish tried.
When Penelope is found dead the next day, and only Tish and presumably the father know about the pregnancy, Tish tackles convincing the law enforcement team on hand that there could be more to the death than an accident. That shouldn't be too hard to do, considering Tish is "involved" with one of the investigators -- but actually that complicates things most of the time. ("Dating Nash had never been in her plans, but kissing Nash was always on her top ten list. He made her toes curl.")

Add in discovering her grandfather's been jailed on the mainland, and trying to sort out a possible involvement of the local drug dealer on several fronts. But what Tish never dreamed would happen is a personal attack from that very same grandfather, who's apparently been sure she won't stay on the island and therefore won't keep the business going and ... should we mention what that could do to Nash, in grandfather Tobias's unkind opinion?

Don't confuse this with a "romance mystery." Tish often has a sardonic edge to her, which keeps the dialogue snappy, whether it's with suspects, or just in her head -- or with Detective Spring, a law enforcement pro who definitely doesn't have a soft spot for her:
"Here to bail [your grandfather] out?" he asked.

It was exactly this kind of question that annoyed Tish. He knew the answer. Why even ask?

"No," said Tish. "I brought him a cake with a file in it, but other than that, I figure he's on his own. I'm going to spend my evening recording over his Matlock collection." Detective Spring raised an eyebrow and gave her a look. She gave him a look back.
Maines balances a delicious amount of risk and re-thinking with the perils of island life, and her red herrings (fresh from the Pacific?) provide both puzzle solving and lively distraction along the way. As with most traditional mysteries, you've got a chance to figure out the villain before Tish was -- but you may be chuckling (or biting your nails) too much to follow the right thread. One way or another, shelve this one as really good entertainment — a well-blended caper mystery with memorable scenics and characters, just enough edge to the humor, and satisfying strands in the solving.

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

Monday, February 03, 2020

Light Crime Fiction from Stuart Woods, TREASON

[originally published by the New York Journal of Books]

“Stuart Woods with Treason provides a couple of hours of uncomplicated chase-and-shoot entertainment.”

There are hundreds of ways in which a work week can slide sideways and add stress. But of all the ways to balance that feeling, the Stone Barrington novels by Stuart Woods may be in the top 10. The newest title, Treason, is an action-packed romp through “outing” a Washington, DC, mole and enjoying the delights of fine food and wine, good friends, and happy romps in bed, all between “scrambled” phone calls to top CIA buddies.

Spun in short lively chapters ideal for commuters and other often-interrupted readers, Treason opens with Stone Barrington’s long-time friend and lover, Holly, arriving in person to seek his assistance. Suspecting a mole in the Department of State and unwilling to risk trusting either the CIA or the FBI, Holly wants Stone’s advice on what her other options are. And she’s made a good choice in coming to him; after a few diversions, Stone connects her with a truly trusted contact who can start the rapid screening process needed.

And rapid is the key word, because Holly is already Secretary of State and about to open her Presidential campaign. She can’t risk having a mole in place and later being exposed—it would totally blow her image as competent on the high-pressure stage of national and soon global politics. The catch is: At first, it looks like her department is “clean,” and she steps forward.

Which is when Stone and his buddies realize things are more complicated than they look, and a diversion or two will be necessary to both flush out the mole and protect Holly’s campaign. Naturally, since a Stuart Woods new release is always up-to-date, the issue at stake involves manipulation by a Russian oligarch.

“’I had no instructions regarding discretion, or on how to kowtow to a Russian oligarch,’ Stone said. ‘So I treated him like a normal human being.’

‘He is not a normal human being,’ Lance said, ‘as I assume you now understand.’

‘I understand that he does not regard himself as a normal human being,’ Stone said, ‘and that he may have come to regard me as less than one, since he is obviously accustomed to a level of obsequiousness that I have not yet attained in my dealings with the superrich.’

‘Oh, stop being a pompous ass,’ Lance scolded.”

There’s plenty of such witty dialogue involved, but the plot eventually matures to the wealthy seacoast version of car chases: yacht maneuvers. And of course plenty of armaments and explosions underway.

Series fans will understand that there’s no serious long-term risk to Stone himself, since he needs to survive for the next book. But will his snappy maneuvering prove enough to protect the seductive women who appear so often in his life? Come to think of it, might any of those sexy ladies be covering for a Russian espionage entanglement?

As usual, riding shotgun for Stone Barrington means adapting to the next crisis before all the pieces are clearly aligned. With some light-hearted political commentary tossed over the shoulder, Stuart Woods with Treason provides a couple of hours of uncomplicated chase-and-shoot entertainment.

Or are the Russians really infiltrating American politics after all?

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

Joseph Finder's #4 for PI Nick Heller: HOUSE ON FIRE

“. . . [this is] the charm of a Joseph Finder novel, tugging readers into identifying with the PI, even without ever carrying a weapon or sneaking up on a suspect themselves.”

In book 4 of his Nick Heller series, House on Fire, Joseph Finder merges the traditional private investigator role of his PI protagonist with a dangerous form of industrial espionage: prying into the family secrets of the corporation behind a powerfully addictive opioid. The enormous wealth of the Kimball family, built on their share of the drug economy, is rooted in family guilt as well. And the minute Nick starts prying, he’s a target for those willing to protect their secrets and fortunes by any means possible.

You’d think Nick would realize this and decline the case. But as Finder demonstrates so deftly, Nick’s heartstrings are vulnerable to old loyalties. In this case, the funeral of his army buddy Sean, who saved Nick’s life in the service, summons Nick to support the grieving widow and kids—and sets him up as a target:

“One woman stood out from the other mourners. She was a hippieish woman in her thirties, wearing a busily colored fringed, crochet-knit shawl over a black dress. I’d noticed her before, at the church, sitting off by herself. . . . She didn’t look like she came from here. I couldn’t figure her out. My first thought was that she was a journalist, but then I ruled that out—she was dressed too nicely. I also had the strong feeling she’d been looking at me.”

Susan Kimball, it turns out, is there to recruit Nick to infiltrate her family’s compound and extract an important file of results: ones that showed how addictive the Kimball fortune-making drug would be, well before it gained approval for the marketplace. Susan, or Sukie, wants justice for the drug-related deaths, and is willing to help Nick expose the research hanky-panky.

In the big crowd of guests at the grand estate, unexpectedly Nick finds his his former colleague and lover Maggie. The two can still trust each other, and swap some details, discovering they’ve got parallel assignments to pursue. Good thing to have some companionship, because nothing among the Kimball crowd is as direct or honest as it may look, and by a third of the way through this investigation, Nick and Maggie are dodging murderous plots right and left. Even Sukie might not be playing straight, despite what she’s got to gain from Nick’s potential success.

Finder provides a straightforward suspense thriller in House on Fire, turning up the action and tension with each scene. When Nick tracks down the original whistle-blower for the pharmaceutical scam, the tension goes global, too, with connections to Eastern Europe. Soon one of the other Kimball family members suggests that Nick will need to tackle a necessary murder in order to get through the case: “‘Every document of civilization in also a document of barbarism. The son wants to redeem the sins of the father but at the same time he’s necessarily implicated in them, right?’”

Talk high philosophy to Nick, and you provoke him into questioning everything else he’s getting told—which is the charm of a Joseph Finder novel, tugging readers into identifying with the PI, even without ever carrying a weapon or sneaking up on a suspect themselves.

For those who follow the latest scandals of real-life pharma companies, some of the revelations in House on Fire will seem straight from the news. But fear not, Finder always has another twist ready, and the best of them involve loyalty, friendship, and compassion. Buckle up for a good read.

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

Is This Our Future? AGENCY from William Gibson

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

As for all really important worldmaking, the key to the power of Agency is not the imaginative twists of computers, software, or politics, but what people do for the sake of those they care about, and those who care about them. Even if the one caring is clearly a piece of software.

For suspense readers, “agency” is shorthand for the CIA. But Agency in William Gibson’s speculative creation goes far beyond an intense, suspenseful thriller—it’s the intro to a new world, one in which crime and criminals, whether government-hired or corporate or “mob,” test the boundaries of how to shape the future. And maybe even the past.

The book begins simply enough: A software tester, better known these days as a beta tester, takes on an assignment for a San Francisco-area company, after a couple of years of unemployment. Verity Jane (Jane’s her last name) believes the parent company is “in gaming.”

But when Verity powers up the augmented reality (AR) set she’s taken home to test, it—or she, Eunice—clearly has capacities well beyond the expected. In fact, Verity’s first notable action is to ditch the AR gear and retreat to the bathroom, to make a private call to the CEO who’d hired her. “‘Is this for real? … Just tell me there’s not someone somewhere doing Eunice, for my benefit?’”

The moment that Verity starts digging in to test Eunice’s capabilities for herself, readers leap from the West Coast to somewhere in Britain. The second chapter of the book actually springs farther than that in terms of worldmaking, though: Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer, striding along beside a freelance investigator she’s pulling back onto a case, is reflecting on the terminology for chunks of the past, called “stubs,” that people in her system are able to initiate. Except they’re more like branches, pieces of continuity forking away from the recorded past, to expose potential futures where government and society may vary radically.

Inevitably, these two strands of narrative meet, and swiftly. Government in the future insists on seeking out Eunice’s origins and intent, although it will be a long time in the lives of all the protagonists before the British manipulations begin to make sense and have effects, positive or negative. At least at first, it seems Verity Jane is in a kinder, better world than DI Lowbeer and her hired hand, Nethercott. Eunice, who identifies as African American, claims to be eight hours old. In turn, Verity’s thirty-three.

“‘Jesus year,’ said Eunice, ‘thirty-three.’

‘You religious?’

‘It just means time to get your shit together.’

There was a looseness to this beyond [Verity’s] experience of chatbots, but a wariness as well.”

Soon Verity and Eunice move beyond talking about movies and apps, and Verity’s reputation as an “app whisperer” turns out to hide a deep and intelligent loneliness that Eunice mitigates. Can we say that Verity matters to Eunice, just because Eunice makes sure Verity gets the breakfast she needs, or finds important items already packed when it’s time to run? Without Verity—and there’s clearly no frivolousness in Gibson’s choice of this name—can Eunice achieve what she/it intends to? How much will the British interfere, and if there’s really a risk of nuclear war behind all of this, will Eunice’s existence affect that risk? Can the British team affect it?

As for all really important worldmaking, the key to the power of Agency is not the imaginative twists of computers, software, or politics, but what people do for the sake of those they care about, and those who care about them. Even if the one caring is clearly a piece of software.

And that title, Agency? Here’s the first definition from one dictionary: “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.” Much like Gibson’s world-shaping debut novel Neuromancer (1984), Agency points with creative and incisive interest toward the choices that portend. We’ll be fortunate if the human journey of non-artificial reality gives us artificial intelligence as significant and generous as Eunice—with worldmaking agency to follow. 

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

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Winter Crime Fiction: Going Dark with Straley, Schneider, Jurjevics

Things have changed.

The very darkest crime fiction used to be a specialty of a handful of smaller publishers, including a number that dealt only in "paperback originals" (PBOs). And the setting option hit Los Angeles a lot -- or any other location where strong drink and addicted private investigators could make sense.

My thought for this evening is that the spread of Norwegian crime fiction acted as a wedge to open American (and American-connected) publishers to the power of grim narrative that sweeps beyond a gritty locale and an unpleasant detective. But that could also be seen more broadly, as some very dark fiction from Mexico, Colombia, Spain, and Australia also began to reach the US, either via translation or by multinational publishing operations.

Let's get to specifics of this winter's dramatic new offerings.

From Soho Press, in the hands of experienced award-winning author John Straley (former writer laureate of Alaska; Shamus winner for The Woman Who Married a Bear) comes a bizarre twist of speculative fiction and cultural haunting in WHAT IS TIME TO A PIG? The title comes from a farming joke told early in the book -- then echoes into the macabre, along with a "ticking clock" effect that spikes the long rounds of philosophy onto a thriller timeline. Long-time readers of Straley's books may see a gradual buildup to this, but ... it's definitely cutting new ground!

Here's the basis of the "speculative" aspect: There's been a War, started with North Korea sending a missile into Straley's invented town of Cold Storage, Alaska. And industry has formally taken over the prison system, turning inmates into employees at such a rate that there's no incentive to release them! Gloomy Knob (his prison nickname) is one of those prisoners -- and gets snatched out of his mostly comfortable rut, with his wife's life under imminent threat and a race to locate a missing warhead.

Straley mingles the return of Jesus with the buffalo and a Ghost Dance Movement, and sends Gloomy stumbling into visions on the highway. Picking out the threads of goodness and potential survival is beyond Gloomy's level of life awareness ... although he's actually pretty good at guilt and remorse. Moments like this one echo: "Gloomy pushed the dog down and it ran off behind him. 'Who are you?' Gloomy asked. He felt as if ice were unclogging in his heart. 'You know who I am,' she said, her voice rising and color coming to her cheeks. 'You know who I am because you came straight to this house. You know who I am. I almost went to jail for you.'" [Release date Feb. 4]

Under its Poisoned Press imprint, Sourcebooks packs a debut police procedural from Joseph Schneider that dips into the grotesque and bizarre, while walking through what at first seems like ordinary Los Angeles life. LAPD Detective Tully Jarsdel, a former academic who's not yet trusted by his colleagues, snags a case that hangs on both a screenplay and some of the most twisted tortures of the past -- the LONG past (think Greek mythos, even). Jarsdel himself, protagonist of a promised series, is a surprisingly sweet guy who tangles in an affectionate way with one of the crime victims along his path -- made miserable and lonely by the work of a serial pet killer who strikes during the weddings of the pet owners. ONE DAY YOU'LL BURN is a grim title and threatens horrendous torture along the way, but includes a lot of pure LA "camp" with a lot of film fun -- and I couldn't put it down. I kept hoping Jarsdel might prove himself and "get the girl" at the same time. There's even a moment when "He now knew, in painstaking detail, how G --- had died." But instead there's a highly satsifying and grim ending ahead. Make room on the bookshelf for the sequels. [Release date Feb. 4]

Latvian-born Juris Jurjevics remains a hero to those who sought powerful international crime fiction for American readers when it was much harder to find. A publisher and co-founder of Soho Press, he retired in 2006 to embrace writing his won books. He completed PLAY THE RED QUEEN only months before his death, and Soho's celebrated editor Juliet Grames saw the manuscript through to publication. Set during the American occupation of South Vietnam (aka the Vietnam War), it opens with two members of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, Staff Sergeant Ellsworth Miser and Sergeant Clovis Auguste Robeson, assigned to a high-pressure investigation: A Vietnamese woman with astonishing sniper-type firearm skills is killing American officers, and the third incident has taken the bad press over the top. Miser's got his hands full, especially because people often ignore his dark-skinned partner, who's also blocked from tackling some of the investigating.
The captain fixed us with his hombre stare. "Our betters are already in a twist about this Red Queen. If she manages to take out somebody prominent, that will really ratchet their knickers. They want the lady dealt with before she gets that chance ... You're within your rights to shoot the b**** where she stands. Got it?"

Robeson looked uneasy. "We ain't one of Counselor Nhu's death squads, captain."

I put a hand on his shoulder. Times like these, I remembered how many years I had on him, especially the three in Korea.
The writing is a bit uneven, especially in the first half of the book, but Jurjevics paints 'Nam brilliantly and piles great plot twists onto his investigators' shoulders. Keep reading, and chances are you'll feel well rewarded for the journey. At least, I did! [Release date Feb. 11]

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