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